From gourmet restaurants in Seminyak to Ubud's street food, embrace the extremes of eating out on the Indonesian island.
Experience Bali through its cuisine
When I lived in Asia in the 1980s, Bali was the ideal bolt-hole for a long weekend and, somehow, despite more and more tourism, the island has never lost its appeal. I still visit the region every year. On my early trips, most people used to stay in simple village losmen, the Balinese version of a bed and breakfast, but today Bali is home to some of the world's most stunning hotels. Back then, eating out meant grabbing a bunch of satay sticks from a roadside vendor or squatting in a local cafe, and choosing between a strange sweet-and-sour Chinese stir-fry called chap-chai or the ubiquitous gado-gado, a veggie salad smothered with peanut sauce and a couple of greasy keropok prawn crackers, if you were lucky. Yet slowly, over the years, the restaurants got better, the cooking more creative, and eating out now ranks as one of the Indonesian island's biggest attractions.
I'm sitting in the candlelit tropical garden of Mozaic (www.mozaic-bali.com), not just the best place to eat in Bali, but ranked among the Top 100 of the world's best restaurants by the renowned San Pellegrino Guide; it serves up a six-course tasting menu for US$55 (Dh202). I'm reminiscing with its charismatic chef and owner, Chris Salans, and talking about how much the cuisine of this paradise island has changed.
"Today, food lovers come here from all over the world drawn by the creative gourmet cuisine, being invented by exciting young chefs from Australia, Europe and the US who are now working in the island's upscale resorts," Chris says. "But they also come for the wonderful food that's served in traditional warungs." Warungs are cheap and cheerful village canteens, where the Balinese themselves seem to have rediscovered their own delicious traditional cooking and stopped trying to turn out "bland comfort food for foreigners", as Chris puts it.
To get a real taste of Bali, Salans advises, I should split my time in two places: Ubud, the cultural capital of the island, and the fashionable beach resort of Seminyak. This way, I'll experience the two extremes of eating out - chic to shock - from the cool and relatively expensive gourmet hangouts of Seminyak to the genuine Balinese street food served up in Ubud's warungs, where decor and comfort may be non-existent, but the cooking tastes out of this world and costs very little.
I decide to head straight for the sea and sandy beaches of Seminyak, with a stop at the hottest spot right now: the funky fish restaurant Sardine (www.sardinebali.com). Idyllically located in a traditional bamboo-and-grass roof gudang, surrounded by paddy fields, Sardine has succeeded in being the place everyone wants to be seen, while also serving outstanding food, from its signature dish of smoked sardines with new baby potatoes, steamed barramundi in banana leaf, or a classic French tarte Tatinà la Balinese made with mango instead of apples. Owned by a Frenchman, Pascal Chevillot, and Pika, his Slovenian artist wife, the menu changes daily, depending on the catch of local fishermen, while most of the vegetables come from their organic farm.
There is a similarly cool vibe at Breeze, except that instead of rice fields, you sit out overlooking the Indian Ocean. There is a fabulously romantic sunset which is rivalled only by the exotic fusion menu created by the Californian chef, tempting diners with dishes such as crispy soft-shell crab with a tangy green papaya salad, pan-seared foie gras with a ginger compote or miso-glazed Alaskan black cod, from about $28 (Dh103) for a main course.
There are a dozen smart restaurants along Jalan Oberoi, known to locals as "eat street" and one of the most original is Khaima (www.khaimabali.com), specialising in Moroccan home cooking (from $20; Dh73 for mains). The place resembles a luxurious Bedouin tent, with clients smoking shisha and sipping mint tea in a chill-out lounge. I'm assured that, later in the evening, there are belly dancers, too - a serious alternative to the usual cultural shows of traditional Balinese dance.
My last stop in Seminyak is the remarkable Ku De Ta (www.kudeta.net), Bali's most fashionable rendezvous. This is where everyone comes to watch the sun go down in a blaze of colours accompanied by hypnotic trance music played by the coolest DJ in Asia, delicious gourmet tapas and cocktails. In the evening, Ku De Ta transforms into a refined restaurant, where the talented young chef, Phillip Davenport, creates Pacific Rim dishes such as tasty lamb from his native New Zealand, roasted in a cumin crust and served with smoked peppers, olives and feta cheese. Mains cost about $30 (Dh110).
"I love eating out at local food stalls. These days more attention is paid to hygiene and the quality of the products - and you'll see many dishes on our menu that are directly inspired by Balinese cuisine," Phillip tells me. "There is a fantastic raw vegetable salad for example, urab lawar, with a zesty tamarind sauce, and we use this as the perfect complement to lighten heavy dishes such as a beef rendang curry or spicy, slow-roasted veal shank." At midnight, the chef discreetly disappears, the tables are cleared and Ku De Ta metamorphoses again into a pulsating dance club that can last till sunrise.
I head off on a long and winding drive from the coast at Seminyak to Ubud, right at the centre of Bali, through lush tropical landscapes and tiny villages of artisans of stone sculptors, wood carvers, and painters. On Monkey Forest Road, Ubud's main drag, I find out that my favourite tailor, Rai Pasti, to whom I've been going for years to get clothes made, has converted her workshop into a warung, and is now cooking in the kitchen rather than sitting hunched over a sewing machine. This is typical of the seemingly effortless talent of the Balinese, and her food is out this world - traditional Balinese fish cakes with a zesty fruit salsa, chunky tuna satay instead of the usual chicken or beef, and a variety of original vegetarian dishes such as cha tofu, blanched and diced tofu with garden vegetables smothered in a spicy peanut sauce. A main meal will set you back a reasonable $4 (Dh15).
All adventurous foodies have to visit Ubud's busy daily market. Down in the murky basement I discover Warung Nasi Be Tutu, where the market workers themselves come to eat their famous soto ayam, a soothing chicken broth, and bebek betu, Bali's famous recipe for crispy smoked duck. Ubud is also the best place to sample what is known as padang food, a trend that is becoming popular all over Bali. This cuisine is halal because it comes from Indonesia's Muslim islands of Sumatra and Java, and each stall is piled high with a cornucopia of tempting dishes. My favourite stall is Puteri Minang, where everyone gets carried away ordering far too much food - sambal prawns, curried fish, deep-fried baby eels, chicken and pineapple curry - plus a dozen different vegetarian dishes such as, aubergine, okra, wild jungle ferns. Little wonder when main dishes cost as little as $1 (Dh3.67).
Mozaic is just outside Ubud, and the fact Chris Salans chose to locate here rather than trendy Seminyak emphasises the influence of local food on his gourmet cuisine. Salans cooks what inspires him in the moment - sometimes he creates dishes during the evening and doesn't even tell the waiters - using a mix of the finest local products and imported delicacies such as truffles and foie gras. His chef's menu ranges from beef carpaccio, marinated in Sumatran rendang oil with parmesan emulsion, to grilled sea scallops in a rich jackfruit and mushroom sauce, and an incredible mix of the potent durian fruit and chocolate, baked in thin pastry with a fermented black rice sauce. As they say in Bahasa, selamat makan - bon appetit.