Restaurants: Fusion confusion
Caroline Stacey At the Bali Sugar you can go round the world in a single meal. But be warned, you might feel travel sick. Photographs by Nicola Levinsky
Saturday 29 August 1998
In its previous incarnation as The Sugar Club, opened by New Zealand restaurateurs with chef Peter Gordon, it established itself as one of the best exponents of, for want of a better description, fusion cooking. It took outsiders to do it well: innocent enough to open a serious restaurant in what had been the epicentre of the 1981 Notting Hill riots; experienced enough to get the service and wines right; knowledgeable enough about European and Asian food to put them together on the menu, though not necessarily on the plate. And as an Antipodean, Gordon even had an excuse for cooking with kangaroo.
Actually, he's talented enough to be excused almost anything. His menus may test your patience, but his dishes don't stretch credulity; there's a compatibility and clarity of flavours on the plate. And whatever the critics of the Pacific Rim thing say, enough customers agree for Gordon's The Sugar Club to have moved into a stark Soho site almost double the size of its original home.
Gordon's move created a vacancy in the Notting Hill kitchen. Enter Claudio Aprile, straight from Toronto, a new face at The Bali Sugar, the name now on the facia of the otherwise unchanged restaurant.
He, too, is in the vanguard of the round-the-world freestyle. But with Japanese and Mexican as his favourite sources, there's little that's familiar to fall back on when you order. As Goldie said of the adobo chicken with fufu, cumin beans and mole: "It sounds as if it will take up a lot of energy digestively." And that's after the effort expended reading, translating and choosing from the menu. Kiki said it sounded more like a pack of Pekinese than a main course.
The cooking is certainly skilled - every plate had at least one great feature, but eating it was as much about deconstruction as delectation. Take tuna tartar with avocado in a cylindrical fried basket of coiled potato with a cucumber relish round the edge; for all its tidy artfulness, it tasted predominantly of avocado. Prawns stuffed with crab and expertly grilled were splendidly upholstered, fresh and seafoody, but what was gained by the cold buckwheat noodles with chewy mushrooms (or were they sea lettuces?) beside them?
Best starter was a salad of ingredients that integrated thrillingly and distinctively well: slices of duck breast mixed with rocket, and leafy pea shoots with no identifiable taste, dressed with sesame and shiso (a sweet, leafy herb). There were tiny beetroots round the edge, and strange-tasting potato crisps on top, although, of course these were made of taro root.
The adobo (a marinade of dried chilli with vinegar) chicken breast itself was not remarkable, though the fufu, a starchy vegetable mashed with bacon bits and a slight taste of condensed milk was irresistibly rich. The mole (one of many types of Mexican sauce of ground chilli and spices, characteristically with nuts, which this didn't seem to have) was smoky sweet, and the French beans could have done with some salt as well as, or instead of, cumin. With so many flavourings it sometimes seemed that basic seasonings had been overlooked. Chipotle (a paste of chipotle chilli, smoked and dried) pork was lovely, but what was that jammy blob beside it? Cranberry? Redcurrant? Only another look at the menu revealed it to be plum chutney and the sauce to be black bean. Did I mention there were also palm hearts in there somewhere. "Could do with some editing," said Kiki of this collision of continents.
London has plenty to learn about Latin American, particularly Mexican, cooking, and these two dishes made me wish for more of it, without the distractions of everything else. There's no denying the chef's knowledge of the world's ingredients and methods, you just might question the wisdom of putting so many of them on one plate, and hope for depth as well as breadth of flavours.
There was a cumulative sweetness to the main courses, which, as the chef comes from Canada, made me imagine that he couldn't resist slipping in maple syrup somewhere. None of this mattered when it came to puddings: a watermelon consomme with berries, and figs baked with honey and sprinkled with mint, black pepper ice cream - lovely and creamy with a time-release tingle - and a sesame snap.
At least architecturally, The Bali Sugar isn't straining for effect (though in the unisex lavatories, even the soap was lemongrass-scented); it's a comfortably cool and beautifully lit two-floor space with a divine back garden. For a neighbourhood restaurant, albeit one offering something you won't find anywhere else, the price is top dollar: pounds 40 a head with only a glass of wine
The Bali Sugar, 33a All Saints Road, London W11 (0171-221 4477). Lunch and dinner daily.
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