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Bali Hai: Family run, family traditions

It has been open for almost 55 years. It will be open for many more.

"We've just renegotiated our lease of our bayfront property for another 40 years," Larry Baumann, owner of Bali Hai restaurant on Shelter Island said proudly. "Now I'm glad that I have my family involved in the operation."

Two of his sons have joined in the management of the business.

Bali Hai restaurant is a fixture on our city's dining scene. It is not only a romantically exciting venue for lunch or dinner but is also a favorite location for weddings, anniversary parties and group meetings. The view from the restaurant of the downtown skyline is one of the nicest.

Over the years, countless families have celebrated major life events at Bali Hai. Baumann is often told that literally generations of customers have enjoyed the food, service and ambiance at the location.

Bali Hai opened about the time when the song of that name was popularized by the movie "South Pacific." Actually, Bali Hai of the song is the name of a small mountain in the cliffs of northern Kauai, near Princeville. The mountain is less impressive than Diamondhead, near Waikiki. But the mystique of the song's melody and words really caught on.

There have been additions to the building over the years. The semi-circular dining room was placed onto the second story, with huge glass windows open to the view of downtown and the north shore naval base. Ships large and small, ranging from aircraft carriers to sailboats, cruise by. There is even a small dock on the restaurant's property where boat owners occasionally arrive for dinner in style. An elevator is available for people who find stairs difficult, but it is hard to find. A huge parking lot in front offers free parking.

The restaurant itself looks like the interior of a hut, with high ceilings and beams that all converge to the center point of the ceiling. Tiki figures add to the décor, wooden carvings in roughly human shape that, in Polynesian culture, mark sacred sites. Pictures of native girls and lots of thatch add to the ambiance. A funny looking large tiki decorates the top of the roof of the building and is affectionately called "Goof."

The food is distinctly South Pacific, with Chinese overtones. A good way to get into the mood is to start with a glass of the world famous Bali Hai Mai Tai. A full glass of the mixture of dark and light rum and orange liqueur will certainly make one's appetite stand at attention. The drink menu has a range of concoctions that run from mild to medium to strong. One of them, a blend of 3 rums, brandy and juices is called Zombie. The name says it all. Or, just try the rums individually, neat or on the rocks.

Appetizers include Hawaiian Poke, marinated ahi tuna, and Shrimp & Crab Cocktail, ceviche marinated shrimp topped by lump crab in a very spicy sauce. "Flaming Wok" entrees include Cashew Chicken, stir fried with water chestnuts and other crunchy veggies.

On the Kona Cuisine menu, the Kona Combo presented macadamia nut encrusted chicken breast and grilled shrimp with a curry lanai sauce that was simply delicious. Salmon Wellington offered a salmon fillet with crab stuffing wrapped in puff pastry, a twist on the famous English was of presenting beef. Lau Lau was a combination of mahi mahi, scallops, shrimp and veggies all steamed with a spicy shrimp sauce.

If you like macadamia, the Macadamia Mousse Chocolate Bombs will be a favorite dessert. The Mango Crème Brulee and Hot Lava Cake were tasty alternatives.

Bali Hai will be open through the Christmas season. But the restaurant will close for three months -- January through March -- for major renovations before opening with a new a la carte menu offering new Asian fusion dishes.

So, enjoy the restaurant while you can, before it closes. Then, wait patiently for the grand reopening. Bali Hai will emerge -- new and better than ever.

Bali Hai is open for lunch and dinner and Sunday brunch. Prices are inexpensive to moderate. You'll never forget the view. Call 619-222-1181 for reservations and information.


Rottenberg is editor of Dining San Diego Magazine, and a member of the California Restaurant Writers Association.

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