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Balinese Nights

To introduce customers to Indonesian culture, a shop in L.A. throws dinner parties complete with gamelan music and gado gado.

Most stores don't post small girls by the doorway to throw rose petals at your feet as you enter. But then Warisan is not like most stores. A design and antiques shop in the funky Fairfax-La Brea district of Los Angeles, Warisan sells one of the most remarkable collections of Indonesian furniture and housewares this side of Java. Displayed all around the showroom are chairs, cabinets and benches made from aged teak, along with relics picked up at markets and small craft centers across Indonesia: hand-painted silks, rough-hewn farm tables, canopied Balinese wedding beds, clove-scented candles and solemn loro blonjos, the traditional wedding statues of the Javanese.

The rose petals set the mood at Warisan's dinner parties--another thing most stores don't do. On the first Monday night of every month, Warisan puts on a traditional Indonesian rijsttafel for 20 guests. Liza Robinson-Vidal, a globe-trotting Australian who once ran a popular restaurant in Bali and is now in charge of sales and marketing for Warisan, first conceived of the dinners as a gimmick to draw customers. "People--especially people in L.A.--love the idea of trying something they've never experienced before," she says. "This isn't the typical cocktail party." One recent dinner attracted a fashion designer, an Indonesian priest, a psychotherapist, an actor, a former ambassador and a couple who had been married in Bali. "The people who come really have only one thing in common," Robinson-Vidal says. "They all love Bali, and they want an authentic Balinese experience."

Visitors are met at the door by Robinson-Vidal's daughters, Krista, 10, and Annie, 11, who are half-Balinese and have mastered the fine art of Indonesian hospitality. After they have finished blanketing the entranceway with petals, a gong sounds, and the girls, each wearing an elaborate Balinese headdress, perform the traditional legong dance to the haunting xylophone music of a live gamelan orchestra. The tables are covered with linens and fresh flowers, napkins are wrapped in banana leaves, and the guests' names are written out on magnolia leaves.

Warisan is not new to the business of feeding people. Its headquarters, located right in the middle of a steeply terraced rice paddy on the southwest shores of Bali, has a café that is a favorite among expats and local friends of the company's owners, Gianpaolo Nogara and Lucio Brissolese. The food there is French influenced; at Warisan's L.A. site, however, the meals are less about coq au vin than about coconut--along with palm sugar, black rice and other Indonesian staples. Robinson-Vidal prepares the menu and oversees an Indonesian staff headed by Siti Julhaidah, a chef from Java who also cooks for the Indonesian consulate.

Dinner typically begins with soto ayam, chicken noodle soup infused with a healthy dose of ginger, and lumpia, small pancakes filled with shrimp and bean sprouts, lightly fried. As at all rijsttafels, the main event is a medley of many small dishes, all highly seasoned and aromatic, served family style on coconut-wood platters and eaten from plates fashioned out of banana leaves. As nods to Indonesia's street vendors, there are charcoal-grilled chicken satay skewers with spicy peanut sauce and nasi goreng, a fried rice and egg dish. Beef rendang is a succulent beef dish with curry and coconut, the popular gado gado a colorful collection of steamed vegetables with peanut sauce. Platters of steamed rice (rijsttafel means "rice table" in the language of Indonesia's Dutch colonists) offset the chile peppers that are used in abundance. A dessert of fresh tropical fruit and black rice pudding with a cool splash of coconut milk assuages any lingering heat.

Considering how far Robinson-Vidal goes to create a Balinese atmosphere, it's no surprise that the guests get into the spirit. Most of them actually dress in sarongs, but some go even further. When Barbara Vyden, a fund-raiser from Beverly Hills, brought her family and some friends to a recent dinner, they decked themselves out like royals.

"My husband wore a red velvet cape, and the kids dressed up in outfits we bought in Little India," Vyden says. "Even though we were just a 10-minute drive from home, we forgot we were in Los Angeles. It was more than a dinner party--it was an exotic little holiday."

David Hochman is a senior staff writer for Entertainment Weekly.

Published May 2000
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