The popular Bali restaurant has plenty in store for traveling gourmands when they return to the island.
More than 13,000 kilometers of ocean separate the Indonesian fishing village of Jimbaran from Tsawwassen on Canada’s west coast, the hometown of Bali-based chef Kevin Cherkas. He’s one half of the dynamic husband-and-wife team (the other is Spanish restaurateur Virginia Entizne) behind Cuca, a 200-seat Jimbaran venue that has become a firm favorite among holidaymakers and residents alike since it first opened in 2013.
The story of Cuca’s inception is an inspiring one. Cherkas left Canada at the age of 21, going on to work at a quartet of multi-Michelin-starred restaurants: Daniel Boulud’s namesake French fine-diner in New York, Arzak in San Sebastián, La Broche in Madrid, and Ferran Adrià’s legendary El Bulli. The globetrotting chef met his future wife and business partner while working in Malaysia; they subsequently moved to Singapore, where they resigned at the peak of their careers — Cherkas as a soon-to-be executive chef at a five-star hotel, Entizne as director of a premier language school. A serendipitous turn of events led them to Bali and “a tiny plot of land down a road with no lights.” The duo then upped sticks and arrived in Indonesia with little more than their skills, their savings, plus a sheer determination to build this new venture from the ground up. “We were sure that we preferred to fail miserably trying to do something from our heart, and do it 100 percent, than doing something that would have been safe and successful but our heart and soul weren’t in it,” Cherkas excitedly recalls.
I meet Cherkas and Entizne ahead of a pop-up dinner at Grand Hyatt Jakarta’s fifth-floor Poolside Restaurant, where Cuca is taking over the open kitchen for several nights. It’s an appropriately airy yet intimate venue for the collaboration, a place that opens out onto lush, manicured gardens festooned with coconut palms and flowering plants like bougainvillea — an unexpected oasis of peace and tranquility amid the madness of downtown Jakarta.
Cuca’s stated focus is tapas, cocktails, and desserts inspired by traditional flavors. The goal was always to recreate memories of different places for a global clientele, using only Indonesian ingredients to guarantee freshness and flavor. Cherkas reminds me that beyond those benefits and the reduction in food miles, there’s another good reason for the absence of imported products from Cuca’s menus. “When people travel to Bali from all over the world, I promise you they do not want to eat caviar and truffles and foie gras. The most exotic ingredient you can give to somebody from France, Italy, Spain, or Canada is a papaya.”
With the Covid-19 pandemic keeping us at home for much of the last two years, the idea of recapturing the magic of our past travels through food could not be more timely. Cherkas has been using this quieter period to hone recipes that had previously been left on the back burner. “A lot of the dishes on our new menu were things we had written to develop but simply didn’t have time from before.” Entizne interjects: “Every time we travel somewhere, we write down ideas … it takes three or four months to develop one dish, so it’s a very serious enterprise.”
Border closures indirectly led to the recent introduction of their personal homage to Singapore chili crab, while fond memories of Taiwan’s night markets inspired them to create “beef bone and marrow”: imagine a thin layer of honey-glazed grilled meat wrapped around a hefty bone, the rich marrow melding into sticky rice laced with soy sauce, five-spice, and garlic. Cherkas and Entizne also play off local flavors and their own backgrounds: the softness of the large red chili that makes up the “chili satay” appetizer is reminiscent of Spain’s stuffed piquillo peppers, though its spiced fish and coconut filling tastes vaguely Indonesian. Served with crunchy squid-ink crackers, the Japanese-influenced fish tartare comprises tomato sambal–spiked chirashi (minus the sushi rice) topped with a painstakingly made arrangement of cucumber “fish scales.”
But then there are the Cuca classics that will most likely never be taken off the menu. A must-try? The smoky, fork-tender BBQ octopus with crisp slices of apple, caramelized cauliflower, and lime-green Asian gazpacho that yields notes of coriander and lemongrass. Sweet tooths will want to leave space for the whimsical Bali Breakfast, a whipped coconut and frozen passionfruit pudding crowned with a perfectly formed “yolk” of mango purée.
At Grand Hyatt Jakarta, the pop-up dinner comes to a close with three bite-size treats. These include a dough-free peanut butter cookie whose intense flavor and melt-in-the-mouth quality remind me of turrón blando, the soft almond-based nougat that’s a specialty of southeastern Spain. The tiny cinnamon French toast, featuring apple custard and a tiny dollop of yogurt, has beautifully charred edges, while there’s no denying the universal appeal of the “iced M&M’s” made with organic dark chocolate, milk jelly, and palm sugar. It’s clear that Cherkas’ and Entizne’s passion for their work hasn’t been dampened by the tribulations of the past 20-odd months, and I know exactly where I’ll go for tapas the next time I find myself in Bali.