Waterloo Region Record - - NIGHTLIFE - Alex Bielak

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

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