Many restaurants in Bali offer Thai options, many more offer Javanese cuisine. In Thailand the best traditional Thai is found amongst the many thousands of street-food vendors, cooking the same way their forebears have done for generations. There are many similar discoveries amongst the local warungs of Indonesia. How great it is to now find food with that same depth of taste from the same original recipes that has been processed via a modern hygienic kitchen. Add to that produced by a western trained local chef of considerable talent.
Such is Café Degan.
It is located on the site of the excellent but short-lived Joglo Restaurant on Raya Petitenget. A massive re-building has resulted in quite an impressive site for such a budget-priced restaurant.
Owner/Chef Degan [ex Grand Hyatt Bali and many years with Banyan Tree in Thailand] and his wife preside in the total hands-on manner that is one of the most important factors in building a successful restaurant business in Bali.
The menu is predominately Javanese with about one third of the offerings being traditional Thai. The first dish I tried at Café Degan is a Thai one that I have had many times before, Gai Hor Bai Toey, sometimes good and sadly far too often poorly executed whether served either in Thailand or in Thai restaurants around the world. At Café Degan it nears perfection. Basically a simple dish it is just chunks of marinated chicken breast wrapped in pandanus leaves and steamed, later cooled and deep fried just prior to serving. At best, as served here, the finished product is tender browned chicken infused with the taste of the pandan then dunked in a wonderful dip of chilli paste, tamarind and sesame oil that has been simmered till it becomes a black paste dotted with sesame seeds.
Yum Nua is strips of beef tossed with cucumber, celery, tomato and coriander in a chilli lime dressing. The beef, just seared, was a bit on the chewy side, quiet a contrast to a later Beef dish from the Javanese menu where it had been simmered in a Rawon broth, the thin squares tender and full of taste from the Rawon [the flesh of the rawon nut, Keluak].
Any order in the proper Asian manner of a variety of dishes will immediately result in small plates being presented so you can share and enjoy all the contrasts in taste. The steamed rice is served by wooden spoon from a basket, Thai style.
Soms [slightly sour tasting salads of raw fruits and vegetables] are an important part of any Thai meal, at Café Degan they are fresh and palate cleansing as they are meant to be. The Yum Pla Foo is a typical Thai dish, full of contrasts, with its mix of shredded green apple and shallots tossed in a chilli lime dressing with perfectly executed crispy fish [cold pre-cooked fish dropped in hot oil that makes it virtually explode]. Som Tam Gai Yang is a green papaya salad, a skewer of marinated grilled chicken added. Larb Gai is minced chicken, again finishing with a hot sour taste.
Thai soups are famous and their Tom Yum Goong, prawns in a hot and sour broth, is becoming an International standard, even appearing regularly on non-Thai menus around the world. But for me Tom Kha Gai is also a very special soup, tender chunks of chicken cooked in coconut milk with lemongrass, coriander and galangal.
Gaeng Kiaw Wan Gai is chicken in a coconut milk curry of green chilli, Thai basil and lime zest. You get a chilli after taste but it is not overpowering, just warming, leaving a tingle on the lips. It is a great example of a well-balanced Thai dish, all components producing an overall taste. Gaeng Kiaw Wan Pak is a similar mix but this one is pure vegetarian with zucchini, carrot and beans in the same green coconut curry. Fish can be steamed, with chilli, lime, coriander and garlic, or fried in the wok to a crisp finish.
The Javanese menu contains many dishes that are available everywhere, the difference here is in the attention to detail. The Lumpia Udang are thin crisp spring rolls stuffed with small prawns, Sambal Goreng Udang a bowl of prawns combined with potato and snow peas in a rich red coconut broth. Ikan Panggang Kemangi is fish that has been slowly simmered in ginger, chilli, tamarind, lemon grass and lime leaf.
Nasi Goreng [fried rice] comes in two forms; with coriander marinated lamb spiced up with chilli soy, or salted fish, whilst the Mie [noodles] are pure Javanese style, fried or simmered, with chicken pieces, egg and vegetables, topped with fried shallots.
Ayam Goreng, fried chicken, is seen everywhere but here the turmeric marinated pieces of chicken [on the bone] are served with perfect crisp skin wrapped around tender flesh. A chilli sambal accompanies this dish but better to just pick a piece of chicken and eat with your hands, finger-licking good! Daging Sambal Hijau is a spicy beef mix, being cooked with green chilli, tomato and line leaf. Gulai Kambing is in its traditional turmeric coconut milk broth and the Rawon, mentioned before is served with two halves of perfect salted egg on the side.
As with all Asian cuisines there is never a shortage of quality vegetarian dishes, and not just the usual bland stir-fries but dishes full of taste. Sayur Asam is a mix of vegetables in a tamarind broth with small chunks of corn on the cob and teri [sprats] split open and cooked till crisp. Yum Tua is a Thai salad with green and long beans with shallots, peanuts and a coconut chilli dressing.
Desserts are a mix of Javanese and western, many of which are displayed in the small air-conditioned pastry shop inside the restaurant.
Café Degan is, as yet, unable to sell wines as unlike some other new restaurants they are waiting for all the licensing red tape to be completed first. However they welcome your arrival with your own wine, something that will endear them to the Australian tourists who go BYO to all but the very elite restaurants.
Latest Visit: A new air-con pastry and coffee shop at the front and great new dishes on the menu; Bebek Tumis Cabe (wok-tossed duck with red chili, lime leaf and tomato) and Ayam Panggang Bumbu Bali (which is whole clay pot-baked chicken in Balinese spices with cassava leaves stuffing) on the Indonesian selection. The latter must be ordered one day in advance due to the preparation and cooking time.
As for the Thai side, there is Yum Woon Sen Goong (the spicy glass noodle salad, with prawns, tomato, spring onion in chili lime dressing), Pla Yum Mamuang (green mango salad with breaded crisp fish fillet), gai phad met mamuang himmapaon (chicken with cashew nut, onion, capsicum and dry chili), phad grapao gai (minced chicken, with Thai basil, chili and coriander), phat nuea naam man hawy (stir fry beef, assorted mushroom, spring onion and chili).
All fantastic and great value!