Where: Warung Agus, 305 Victoria Street West Melbourne
What: Stellar Balinese food with a social conscience
Who: Steph of All Trades and Chicken Man
Bloat score: 4 – If I were lying prostrate on my tummy, it would have looked as though I was levitating
I’m not going to be a dickhead and say Indonesian food is having a ‘moment’, because the food of some 280 million people can’t be reduced to a trend or phase, but I am heartened by the widespread appreciation people around me are having for Indonesian dishes and the different regional variations of Indonesian cuisine. There’s Salero Kito, the nasi padang stall in Tivoli Arcade that sates office workers Monday to Friday. There’s Blok M Express on Little Bourke Street, whose menu draws from West Sumatra to Java. There’s the Balinese Makan, started up by two sisters of My Kitchen Rules fame. There’s Pondok Rempah, YOI, RIA Ayam Penyet and Kenangan. And on the periphery of Melbourne’s CBD, there’s Warung Agus.
A family-run Balinese restaurant that’s been open since 1989, Warung Agus has been a lifesaver for so many in lockdown with their home delivery of food boxes and their consistently generous offers of mutual aid for members of their community who are in financial strife. Warung Agus owner Suci Ida Bagus has a piece in the inaugural edition of the First Nations, Black and people of colour-focused Colournary Magazine about inheriting the memories, trauma and rituals of her migrant parents who first opened the restaurant. I also found this lovely interview between her and Raf Epstein. Warung Agus has a strong legacy and it’s much beloved.
Warung Agus’s menu is an eclectic one – demarcated by entrees, vegan dishes, and dishes featuring fish, chicken or pork. I was visiting with Steph of All Trades and Chicken Man, the latter of whom had been before, so we took his lead in what to order while factoring in his famously gargantuan appetite.
The food was exquisite when it arrived, but I do have one disclaimer: it took around one and a half hours to appear. Whether it was because we visited on a Friday night and the kitchen was inundated or whether it was because all the food is made fresh onsite, it’s worth knowing to allow some time.
We decided to order multiple dishes among us, but a small portion of each so we had enough stomach space to try everything. We received three sambals to start off with – a sambal matah (shallot and lemongrass sambal) and two other sambals I concede to forgetting the names of, but they were very good. I remember the one the waitstaff signposted as vegan was the spiciest.
As a huge fan of tempe, I insisted we order the tempe goreng ($15) – tempe lightly fried in a turmeric rice flour batter served with a housemade sweet chilli sauce. Tempe, or tempeh to some, are fermented soybeans formed into a block – it’s firm, it’s nutty, and it has a slight tang. It originated in Indonesia thousands of years ago, which explains why it’s such a mainstay in Indonesian cuisine, and I love it in many different forms – deep-fried in a batter as it was in this Warung Agus dish, sauteed in a spicy tomatoey sambal, or fried in a caramelised thick soy glaze.
The spongy, thin rice flour batter on this wasn’t as thick and crunchy as the wheat flour batter in Yoi’s deep-fried tempe version (if you’ve had a chance to try that), but this lighter batter meant the tempe itself had more room to shine and for fans of tempe such as myself, this can only be a good thing.
Chicken Man had ordered the tuung santen lalah manis ($15) – sliced eggplant and tofu braised in a coconut milk-rich, sweet soy spicy gravy – the last time he visited and recommended we order it again. I neglected to mention that eggplant is one of the few high-in-histamine vegetables that I definitively know gives me a negative reaction, so I enjoyed this dish with the air of someone who knows their decisions will haunt them the next day. The gravy was thick, fragrant and mildly spicy, with the soft and pillowy eggplant and tofu interspersed with fried shallots, cucumber and capsicum. I’ve read reviews of Warung Agus over the years that always mention this dish, so don’t leave without trying it.
I am au fait with chicken and beef satay, but not so much fish, so I was extremely excited to try the sate lilit be pasih ($16) – minced, spiced fish skewers served with a spicy tomato and shrimp paste dipping sauce and sliced cucumber. Sate lilit is a classic Balinese dish made from either minced pork, chicken, prawn or, in this case, fish. The minced ~protein of choice~ is mixed in with grated coconut, coconut milk and lemon juice, wound around bamboo, sugar cane or lemongrass, and then grilled on charcoal. The result is quite different to the satay I grew up eating in Malaysia – more aromatic, for one, and not as smoky, but just as tasty.
Chicken Man wouldn’t be called Chicken Man if he didn’t implore us to order the ayam bekakak ($36) – a whole baked, crisped spatchcock with a lemongrass and tamarind spice sauce. Other poultry can be spatchcocked but in this case, it was chicken.
Ayam bekakak is a Sundanese grilled chicken dish originating from West Java, reserved for festive occasions like weddings. Its flavour profile is sweet and smoky, owing to the liberal amounts of kecap manis (sweet soy) used and the fact that it’s chargrilled. Warung Agus’s was saucy, making it the perfect complement to the steamed rice we ordered.
Similar in flavour was the balung panggang babi ($17) – a large stack of tender, sticky pork ribs caramelised in kecap manis, though this forced us to eschew all cutlery in favour of eating with our hands (my favourite way to enjoy food).
I’ve been teased before for ordering veggies when I’m dining out but I never do it to be virtuous – a) I love the way greens are cooked in Southeast Asian cuisines and b) a balance of flavours is important! Warung Agus’s simple, fresh dondonan gadang ($15) – stir-fried green vegetables with garlic and soy – was the perfect foil to the rich spicy fattiness of the meal.
Not content to stop there despite it definitely edging towards a four-bloat situation on my part, we opted for two desserts to share between us: the bubuh injin ($12) – traditional Balinese black rice pudding with banana, strawberry and a ginger, coconut cream sauce and the kue dadar ($12) – fragrant crepes filled with palm sugar, vanilla and desiccated coconut.
I love, love, love glutinous rice Asian desserts, so the bubuh injin (or pulut hitam as we refer to it in Malaysia) ticked all my boxes. Palm sugar is a popular sweetener used in Southeast Asian desserts, and I’m certain it was used in this dessert with its sticky caramel notes.
Palm sugar featured again in the kue dadar, a common street food snack in Indonesia with equivalents in Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. ‘Kue’ is a fairly broad term that can refer to any variety of sweet and savoury snacks and ‘dadar’ means omelette or pancake. The aromatic rolled crepes were green owing to the pandan used, while the palm sugar coconut filling and the sprinklings of desiccated coconut atop the crepes elevated into a sweet dessert in the most pleasant, least cloying way. I love Asian desserts so much! Give me either of these desserts over cake any day.
I greatly enjoyed our meal at Warung Agus. The service was incredibly warm and friendly, the restaurant was cosy, and the food was memorable. It’s so gratifying to support a restaurant that does such a good job of supporting their community, but don’t get me wrong – I’m not doing it out of any mere obligation. The food at Warung Agus is just that good.
Warung Agus is open Thursday to Saturday 5pm to 10pm.