Epicurious Eating: Bali Hai
Hai times on Shelter Island
Published Thursday, 13-May-2010 in issue 1168
For nearly 60 years visitors to the Polynesian-inspired Bali Hai have been coming away shocked over the ferocious punch they’ve experienced from drinking a single Mai Tai. That’s because few places in San Diego make them according to the original formula born in the 1940s at Trader Vic’s in the Bay Area.
At Bali Hai, which recently underwent a $4 million makeover and sweeping menu revisions, the rum-based Mai Tai leaves out the pineapple and citrus juices common to modern-day recipes. What you’re left with is a brain relaxant of dark and light rums, orange liqueur and a glimmer of sweet and sour. Polish it off at any pace and from any table in the restaurant, and the view of San Diego’s skyline twinkling from across the bay appears fabled.
The smell of refurbished redwood and fresh varnish pervade as you enter Bali’s circular, two-story structure, which reopened a few weeks ago under a less-kitsch-is-better concept. The ground floor is used for banquets, while the second level is divided by an illuminated onyx bar separating the cocktail lounge from the dining room. In the dining section, every table comes with a view thanks to large window panels slanted inward as though built for a sky dome.
The new look is solid and earthy, dominated by wood beans and pillars that were sandblasted to remove layers of paint accumulated since the restaurant opened in 1953. Back then it was called Christian’s Hut. Shortly afterwards, Tom Ham (who built Tom Ham’s Lighthouse in 1971) took ownership and renamed it Bali Hai, thus turning it into a veritable showroom for all things Polynesian.
Today it is owned by Ham’s surviving daughter, Susie Baumann and husband Larry, whom she married when he worked here as a bartender many years ago. Together they have retained much of the restaurant’s history.
Precious artifacts gathered over the decades from the South Pacific are still showcased. The tiki-strewn grounds are steadfastly manicured with a tropical touch, and those industrial-strength mai tais haven’t been compromised. In addition, the iconic “goof on the roof” remains – a cartoon-like character made of sturdy paper Mache that gives the impression you’re walking into a circus tent.
“It went up when the structure was originally built by a local woman,” says Larry Baumann. “To this day, nobody knows what it symbolizes.”
Many of the culinary offerings, however, have switched gears under the direction of new executive chef Chris Powell, who hails from Rancho Valencia. Away went the plates of cashew chicken and Kapahula steaks topped with fried onions, and in came things like maple-leaf duck breast and miso-sake black cod. Opt for Alaskan halibut, and behold a complement of Spanish sausage ragout containing honshimeji mushrooms as well as delicate squash blossoms (over-battered unfortunately in tempura).
The dinner menu also features unique ala carte sides such as black bean baby bok choy and fried shishito peppers sporting a flavor that sits somewhere between a green bell and poblano. The wait staff warns that roughly every tenth pepper turns up spicy. My companion got it when plucking the first one out of the bowl. Another side dish, five-spice gnocci, weren’t as strongly “spiced” as I had feared. The pillowy, well-constructed gnocci took the lead in the dish as my tongue adjusted slowly, though not entirely, to a pond of dark oyster sauce and chicken stock in which they sat. (It’s my Italian blood that caused resistance.)
Honorable appetizers point to “pho-duction” short rib dumplings, packed densely with the shredded rib meat for an all-out beefy flavor. In coconut shrimp, the chef breathes new life into the ubiquitous dish by marinating the crustaceans in coconut milk, brown sugar and Thai basil for 24 hours. He then coats them in panko crumbs before hitting the wok. We loved the accompanying lime-ginger dipping sauce as well.
Molecular gastronomy plays in to white corn soup, a sweet creamy broth poured tableside over a puff of mouth-tingling Parmesan foam, concocted likely in a liquid nitrogen canister, which this kitchen had probably never seen before its redo. We also tried the chilled melon soup du jour served over poached shrimp – a fine herald to summer, although a little underwhelming in its fruitiness.
One of the few remaining vestiges from the entrée list is “chicken of the gods,” which I ended up choosing without knowing it carried over from decades ago. The plate yields a pound of battered, fried breast meat cut into julienne strips. It’s laced on top with two sauces: Cream-nutmeg and a hardcore orange reduction, resulting in a flavor that mimics a Creamsicle ice cream bar. The dish is fun and likeable, although I’d probably never order it again.
Still woozy from the Mai Tais, we wrapped up our South Pacific journey with banana spring rolls; their tips dipped in white chocolate and crushed pretzels. Satisfaction prevailed. And Bali Hai went to the top of our list for taking those out-of-town visitors who demand killer views, lots of alcohol and meals priced mostly below $20.