EXCELLING WITH LOCAL AND EXOTIC DISHES,
With the Friday night throngs and muggy late-September heat, a visitor to Waterloo’s Bhima’s Warung could easily imagine they were in Southeast Asia. The feeling intensifies on entering the dark, junglegreen Balinese-motif interior where heady aromas and smoke from the open kitchen scent the air.
Bhima’s owner and Executive Chef Paul Boehmer, has travelled extensively throughout the region, even taking along longtime sous-chef Jon Rennie, helping ensure the restaurant remains at the forefront of dining in the region. Over the years, Bhima’s has matured. Flavour profiles have diversified, and spicing become subtler or intensified, based on experience. Space precludes dissection of every delicious dish our foursome enjoyed, let alone the full range of ingredients they contained, save to say there was not a real miss among them.
Appetizers, chosen from the well-worn menu, delighted. Cha Gio ($14), Vietnamese rice paper-wrapped rolls stuffed with minced pork, crab and shrimp, would have easily satisfied two. The dish is a study in contrasts, including a small salad, and a pale, pungent nuoc cham dipping sauce containing fish sauce, lime juice and other flavours. The Mel Brown ($15), a pulled pork dish with fresh rice noodle, was deeply flavourful with plenty of almost-chocolaty dark bark. Kaeng Samrok ($4 apiece) was a shucked oyster, Cambodian-style atop some cress, in a warm lemon grass, shallot, sugar, oyster liquor with fish and garlic sauce. Ginger and chili provided heat.
An enormous, refreshing salad (good value at $10) came with silken tofu, cucumber, ginger and mint. The line-caught Itsumo Tuna ($20), with chili oil and sesame sauce, and a salad with pineapple elements, was top-notch. Bison Massaman ($50) was a huge portion of six slices of tenderloin in one of the subtler Thai curry sauces: Herle’s corn, microgreens and a mash of taro and potato completed the dish.
I opted for the Northern Thai tasting menu ($62), everything considered, terrific value and not too much food. Crunchy crickets, farmed in Mississauga, with chili salt were an interesting part of an early medley, some burnt garlic a fleeting off-note. Larb, an Ontario Water Buffalo tartare on a betel leaf, was a single palate-cleansing bite.
The sweet and spicy scent of catfish and crispy rice was intoxicating, while hot and sour soup with pork required some awkward hand to mouth action to tear meat from bone. Two kinds of tasty mushrooms, coriander and tomato enhanced the broth, while makrut leaves and lemon grass contributed to my plate’s combat zone-like appearance. Course five — one easily loses count — was a trio of complex pork sausages with tamarind chutney and salad. It was followed by “three meats” with traditional raw vegetables, sticky rice and dipping sauces. Braised pork neck was spectacular, venison jerky flavoursome, but BBQ chicken leg merely ordinary. A playful one banana and a fair dessert followed, though the Sticky Rice Pudding and Lime Leaf Brûlée with praline ($11), shared by the rest of the table, by far eclipsed it.
The only downside to the whole experience was the sticker shock of the bison, easily mitigated had the server mentioned the cost of specials when we were ordering. One might question the total meal cost which could again be addressed by cutting portion sizing, rather than diners opting to share. But, someone must pay for the extensive prep work that goes into assembling such a variety of complex dishes, and regulars seem used to departing with a foil swan enclosing remnants of a given dish.
Like a good movie, a wonderful meal engenders analysis and discussion. This one did long after the event; our parsing touching atmosphere, service, pacing, portion size, and value for money. My welltravelled dining companions agreed dinner was impressive, the flavour contrasts striking, a fine meal that made you think. Pleasant thoughts, including high hopes for the Loloan Lobby Bar, an upscale S.E. Asian bar and eatery Bhima’s principals are opening later this year in uptown Waterloo.
Assessing food, atmosphere, service and prices, Dining Out restaurant reviews are based on anonymous visits to the establishments. Restaurants do not pay for any portion of the reviewer’s meal. Alex Bielak can be reached at www.twitter.com/alexbielak.
1 fork: fair 2 forks:good 3 forks: excellent 4 forks: outstanding