For a long time for me, molecular gastronomy is something that should remain in the lab and not on my plate. Sometimes referred to as modernist or experimental cuisine, molecular gastronomy is a sub-discipline of food science that combines flavours as disparate as chocolate, fish sauce and oregano and subjects them to the exacting rules of physics and chemistry to produce bizarre creations such as amorphous ravioli, craggy-looking but melt-in-the-mouth sponges, umami foam and everything in between.
Plating molecular gastronomy. Photo by Room 4 Dessert
Molecular gastronomy’s potentially pretentious premise – which is to bewilder (or delight, according to devotees) rather than satisfy – used to annoy the socks off me. And what better opportunity to test my fondness for satisfying, down-to-earth and authentic cooking than a visit to Bali, and after having practically inhaled the fecundity of the mountains for dinner late one night in Ubud.
It was late enough in Ubud that most establishments except for the touristy ones serving up Cosmopolitans and Slippery Nipples were shut. Having had a satisfying Italian meal at Dolce Arrancia, I was craving for a neat, small portion of dessert that would serve as a palate cleanser, yet not overwhelm me with sugar. This was a tall order considering that my husband and I have tried practically every establishment in Ubud and “small and neat” is not how one would describe most of the desserts here. Although I have been a regular at Janet De Neefe’s Cafe Luna and Indus, I was getting tired of its rustic offerings, and Dolce Arrancia’s made-from-scratch confections although delicious, were much too generous for my mood.
And so my husband indulged me with a moped cruise on many of Ubud’s smaller roads and finally Jalan Sanggingan in hope that something would catch my eye before we retired to our hotel.
The Room 4 Dessert “steampunk-Mesoamerican inspired cube” on Jalan Raya Sanggingan. Photo by Room 4 Dessert
Room 4 Dessert was a strange, ominous cube rising from the left side of that road (we had come from the Ubud city centre). Its strange shape and texture – evocative of steampunk and Mesoamerican architecture combined – looked like it would be more at home at a Burning Man festival on the Nevada desert than in the middle of tropical, overgrown Bali. Through a crack in the door, it appeared to be private and intimate like many of my favourite bars. Thinking it was a decent enough bar, and having resigned to having a nightcap instead of dessert, we got off our moped to check it out.
This was in May 2014, when owner of Room 4 Dessert and New York native Will Goldfarb had yet to order the serving crockery for his fledgling establishment but was already faced with the prospect of turning off his very first customers: my husband and I.
Owner of Room 4 Dessert, Will Goldfarb, having a drink. Photo by Room 4 Dessert
Chatty and down-to-earth, Will is anything but a wallflower in the culinary world; Bali denizens in the know would recognise him as one of the former dessert institutions of the once renowned and now overrated Ku De Ta in Seminyak, when it was still the haunt of sophisticated and worldly Bali expats and not the touristy nucleus it has become. His first Room 4 Dessert in Manhattan had been praised in the New Yorker, and until it was shuttered for good in 2007, had seen celebrities such as director Wes Anderson and artist Tom Sachs among its regulars.
And even before we could be confounded by the menu which featured flavours that would seem incongruous if assembled on the same plate, let alone blended into a single confection, I was mesmerised by his numerous dark glass bottles of various sizes containing various homemade and carefully curated bitters, herbal and fruit tinctures, Eau de la Vies, wines and spirits.
Will allowed me the pleasure of smelling and tasting some of the bottles’ intriguing contents, but instead of obscuring his craft with condescension, he began his discourse with declaring that he sources for most if not all of his food ingredients locally, even the ubiquitous cacao, with which he would make his chocolate confections. In this apothecary of the senses, Will experiments with ingredients native to Balinese cuisine such as snakefruit, mangosteen, “kemangi” (a sort of basil) and “belinjo” (which until that night I only knew as the bitter crackers on my fried rice), combining them with the usual Western dessert ingredients such as cranberry and vanilla.
Local staff at work. Photo by Room 4 Dessert
He also trains his own local staff; when we visited again last December, at least one of them was completing the final months of secondary school. In Bali, where in spite of the growing tourism boom, opportunities for locals to further their education are scarce with many youngsters entering the workforce as soon as they finish secondary school to support their families. On our future visits, we would often stumble upon local and foreign aspiring pastry chefs sitting around the main counter, debating the complications of hot gelatin and faux caviar while taking down notes, with Will chairing the discussion.
Cheezus West – cheese, ciabatta, kemangi pesto and rosella. Photo by Room 4 Dessert
Room 4 Dessert’s tasting platter for two (RP330,000 or S$35) was born that night because I could not make up my mind even after 10 minutes reading and re-reading the menu of eight desserts, featuring the likes of “The sugar refinery 2.0” (palm sugar, mangosteen and “belinjo”) and “Baba o rhiley” (rum-soaked brioche which looked like said craggy-looking sponge, snakefruit ice and cashew nutella). I also couldn’t decide which was more unusual: the fact that a classic, straight-forward, but executed to perfection cremé brulee had rounded off our eight-course dessert sampler or that I could not get the full menu off their website and instead had to request for it from the restaurant or Will himself.
I still had a sugar rush, but it was not as insufferable as I had feared. And to my surprise each confection teased and delighted rather than bewildered and annoyed, which I mostly attributed to Will’s natural way of putting anyone at ease and that I was not a hungry woman when I sought him out but a discerning diner seeking an adventure in sweets. And if you’re planning to make Ubud your home, there are few places in Ubud like Room 4 Dessert to catch up on the latest local gossip or be acquainted with the wealthy but discreet “in” crowd.
Address: Jalan Raya Sanggingan, Ubud, Kabupaten Gianyar, Bali, Indonesia
Phone:+62 361 5532598