Shot in the Arm for Sanur Cafe Society

A welcome addition to Sanur’s culinary repertoire was the recent opening of Spice by Chris Salans.  Having in the past referred to the ‘Culinary Curse of Sanur’, a seemingly psychic law that, apart from the conspicuous exception of Massimo Sacco, makes it hard for an aspiring restaurateur to prosper significantly in the town, my hope is that master-chef Chris Salans of  the Mozaic reaturant in Ubudwill succeed with this,  the second of his Spice marque ventures, with a third newly opened in Seminyak.

While Sanur has numerous eateries and watering holes with some notable stalwarts, it seems to struggle when it comes to creating anything approaching the style and relaxed pzazz that go to make up the cafe society that Sanur badly needs to acquire if it is to up its game beyond the clunky rather faded seaside resort and albeit agreeable dormitory suburb that it is today. The Cafe Batujimbar, opposite Spice, sort of fulfilled the role in its quirky way but seems to have retreated into the shadows and more recently the Soul in a Bowl  has made some headway in the direction, while Massimo’s regional Italian cooking and gelato operation steams full   speed ahead.

Salans has made a good start by creating an attractive and accessible space, including a pleasant open-air area sufficiently situated away from the road, that is well-located on Jl. Tamblingan serving interesting food and drink at reasonable prices. With that under his belt, along with a well-run establishment, trained staff and his undoubted energy I’d say he’s got 70 percent of the ingredients necessary for success in place.

Now all he needs is the people.

And that’s  a deal breaker. One is tempted to ask if Sanur deserves Chris Salans? The question is of course  a commercial nonsense. The Spice by Chris Salans concept for gastropubs marrying Western cuisine cafe style with Indonesian/local influences is a great idea, properly executed and  in the right location. Ubud, where the first Spice opened, and Seminyak, where a third has just opened, may well be easier places for the concept to fly than Sanur, but that does not mean that Spice Sanur won’t soar. It just means that one approach don’t fit all, is all.

And…, nomenclature matters. For instance, when I hear the words gastropub and tapas used to describe a new eatery I am not immediately thrilled. I know some great  gastropubs, I just wonder why they don’t call themselves ‘restaurant & bar’ or ‘cafe & bar’.  As for tapas, for me it’s a bar or counter serving drinks with tasty small snacks to accompany, a place to snack, not for a meal. No reason why the terms can’t be borrowed, adapted and done in a new way. It’s just that at a cafe & bar, I can sit up at a bar, down at a table, indoors or out, can snack, get a full meal, drink tea, coffee or alcohol as I want, when I want.  I can arrange to meet people and hang out if I’ve a mind to. When I find a good one of these I treasure it.

So forgetting my mumbo jumbo about the Culinary Curse of Sanur, what is it about Sanur that makes it a harder nut to crack? Clearly, judged by the crowds thronging Massimo’s  for lunch and dinner the custom is there to be had.  Tourists in Sanur seem different from those in Ubud and Seminyak. They’re probably older and clearly not coming for the night life. While there good hotels in Sanur, until a Grand Hyatt opens here shortly, there are no real cutting-edge or 5-star properties to speak of. That leaves the good burghers of Sanur and the passing-through trade.

Done right that should be enough of a clientele to make a go of things for Spice Sanur, but by no means is it a walk in the park.

A few Sundays ago when Spice Sanur held its first Bazaar a few of us were sitting at a table with Chris discussing such things. I tend to feel sorry for any patron being subjected to the views of would-be helpful customers, however well meant, and Chris hung in there like a trooper. It’s clear he’s aware of the task ahead of him in Sanur and is taking various steps to meet the challenge, introducing  various events, like a Sunday bazaar, Indonesian dances  and  excellent live music on Wednesday and Saturday nights.

My one piece of advise with regard to the food in Spice Sanur is not to muck too much with the original concept, which I think  interesting, but augment it with a short daily menu of decently-sized servings comprising say: two pasta options (one vegetarian the other seafood or meat), a main fish and meat dish (grilled). That done you’ve covered the gamut.  Diners are free to pick and match as they choose, without diminishing the overall ‘concept’ or forcing it on them. The successful cafe to me is a broad church that does not require a book for a menu, yet a potential group of diners discussing where to eat will always be happy to go there, and do so frequently, knowing the food is fresh, good and they will always find something to suit their taste.

As for ambient music, treat with great care on a moment-to-moment basis. Background music, however good and carefully selected, should remain background music and be varied (not some loop frequent customers can easily spot and tire of).  Except that is, when people want to hear the music. It’s a call. Generally speaking, background music that makes it hard to hold a conversation or use a handphone does not make for good business.

Other than that Spice Sanur just needs hang in there and let Sanur do the rest. The town is changing fast and if its City Fathers are even half smart the place stands poised to regain the international cachet it historically enjoyed – but lost somewhere in the early 1990s. Which, I have to say, is when I came here (not that I can take credit for that). My wife and I rented a place for four years in Batiujimbar, still a magic garden back then. Something interesting had happened here but it was as if a wicked witch had passed over the town and put it to sleep. Only echoes remained. Two decades of slumber ensued as the rest of Bali roared ahead, for better or worse.

Sanur is now emerging from its torpor. Given its strategic location, pretty much on the way to everywhere, its town centre protected by the ocean to the South and the by-pass to the North and the only part of Bali enjoying a half-reasonable level of municipal infrastructure, with new luxury hotels, a major hospital and fashionable retailers and restaurateurs opening shop here, a distinct if sedate buzz is in the air.

If Chris Salans can tweak his operation here to fit the  spirit of the town while the rest of the world cottons on to the fact that there is now a part of Bali, still redolent of the past glories, that is one of the more pleasant and convenient environments to be in Bali for business or pleasure, where you are spared the noise and the traffic jams, he will have deservedly hit the sweet spot.


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