This week's review starts with a final course. Why? Because in the quest to find a truly great mom-and-pop shop, I've had to endure some really awful meals. So consider it my just dessert.
More importantly, the chocolate-and-avocado parfait at Balilicious Modern Indonesian Cuisine (formerly Saté Satu) is so smoothly, refreshingly, surprisingly scrumptious that I simply can't wait another 800 words to tell you all about it.
Chocolate and avocado? Yes, you read correctly. This inspired combination is quite common throughout Southeast Asia, where avocados are primarily found in sweet, not savoury, dishes. In Indonesia, thick avocado milkshakes drizzled with chocolate syrup (or served over ice with crunchy coffee grounds) are practically a national staple.
At Balilicious, this pasty tradition has been slightly watered down for Western palates and swirled into a creamy, candy-striped pudding that tastes much less startling than it sounds.
When you think about it, avocado is a wonderfully versatile thickener because it doesn't really taste like anything. Super-sensitive taste buds may be able to detect a hint of nuttiness or subtle grassy undertone, but the fruit's unadulterated flesh is fairly neutral.
Here, the silky, lightly sweetened avocado mousse is perfumed with lemongrass and lime, which gives the rich milk chocolate a bright, zesty lift. Topped with chocolate nibs, hazelnut wafer rolls, a dollop of whip cream and maraschino cherries, this is a heavenly dream team of a dessert, the kind that makes the sometimes-hellish task of trolling off the beaten path completely worthwhile.
I've been spending more time in modest neighbourhood restaurants and out-of-the-way holes in the wall because that's what you, dear readers, have been telling me you crave.
Your recommendations have led me to some, uh, interesting venues, lovely people and one seriously nasty case of undercooked-fiddlehead-induced stomach cramps. I won't dwell on the bad experiences because, well, that would be like shooting fish a barrel.
But I will give a shout out to Ray Harvey, who suggested Balilicious. This cozy, unsung Cambie Village gem is every bit as warm, welcoming and delectable as he promised.
Owners Derrick and Linda Ghieuw are second-generation Vancouverites of East Javanese descent. They've operated their batik-and-handicraft-strewn restaurant for eight years, but recently decided to change the name to give it a more distinctly Indonesian identity.
The decor is more homey than modern, with colourful tables jammed close together, plants wrapped in Christmas lights and an open-kitchen counter covered in wood carvings, plaster masks and Maneki Neko lucky-charm cats.
Yet the menu offers some contemporary flourishes, especially in the beverage department. I was impressed to see a dozen suggested wine and microbrew pairings. Unfortunately, the wines are only available by the bottle, which makes mixing and matching with a multitude of shared dishes rather difficult.
And even though a boldly bitter Tree Hophead IPA ($5.25) should, theoretically, stand up nicely to a spicy beef brisket Rendang Sapi ($13.95), this normally dry curry is unusually rich and creamy. Though splendid on its own, the coconut sauce gives the hops a harsh, metallic edge.
If your curiosity is piqued by the avocado-chocolate parfait, do try the fruity es susu gembira ($4.95), one of the menu's many interesting non-alcoholic drinks. Who would have guessed that sweet condensed milk, berry syrup and soda could be so deliciously addictive?
Chef Derrick, who trained in his parents' restaurant, does a very good job with some of the more standard Indonesian dishes. His satay skewers (most are $2 to $3 each) are charred and juicy, especially the young spring lamb. And his satay sauce is dark and pulpy with tamarind, rather than being homogenized into sticky peanut butter.
Sambal Ikan Belado ($15.95) is a moist filet of meaty snapper encased in a fried flour batter that keeps its crunchiness under a glossy slathering in spicy garlic sauce.
For vegetarians, there are several enticing tofu and tempeh dishes. My only quibble is that an otherwise rich and delicious sweet pumpkin yellow curry could stand to lose its white-tinged, ready-cut baby carrots.
But the monthly changing chef's menu is where Mr. Ghieuw's creativity really shines. Martabak Asin ($4.95) is a piquant blend of ground and corned beef flattened in a flaky, whisper-thin green onion pancake. It's served with more of that deeply dark, peanut-studded satay sauce for dipping.
If you're familiar with Indonesian cuisine, you've probably heard of sambal kelapa telur ($3.95). They're hard-boiled eggs smothered in mouth-scorching chili sauce. At Balilicious, the chef gives the sliced egg a golden flash in the pan for textural interest and tempers the red-hot sambal in buttery coconut cream jazzed up with garlic and dried fish flakes.
I know it sounds as about weird as avocado and chocolate, but it works just as wonderfully.
Don't knock it till you've tried it, or at least sent me to taste-test it for you. This guinea pig only has one request - no more toxic fiddleheads, please.