It’s been said that some of the most interesting places are those where cultures meet; where there’s a cross-fertilisation of ideas and customs, leading to experimentation and invention.
Bali is a great example of this. Strongly influenced by its interactions with the Chinese, Indian and Dutch cultures, this Hindu dominant Indonesian island is visited by more than 2 million visitors annually.
Food forms a big part of most tourists’ adventure. It also plays a prominent part in Balinese family life, religious festivals and celebrations, from special events to cremations. Eating out in Bali is full of surprises, reflecting the contrasts evident in this cosmopolitan island. You will often be seated in a wall-less café overlooking a sculptured garden complete with ponds and goldfish, a beautiful view across a valley, or paddy fields complete with dragon flies.
Each meal is a celebration of the Balinese people’s connection to the land, artistically presented on stone, bamboo or carved wooden plates, arranged on banana leaves, the bright colours and textures enticing you to partake. Accompanying your meal, there’s usually a fabulous range of cold teas and juices available.
Balinese food is cheap and tasty, and many local warungs have adapted Balinese food to cater for tourists’ palates. Typical meals could include nasi goreng (fried rice with a fried egg on top) and mie goreng (fried noodles with egg). Satay chicken is one of my favourites. Thin strips of marinated meat on skewers are grilled over a coconut fuelled barbeque (often at your table) and served with a spicy peanut sauce and rice.
There’s also lots of choice of other cuisines besides Indonesian, including Italian, Japanese, Greek, and French-influenced bakeries. But it’s the fusion restaurants which provide us with most food for thought, their cuisine an interesting combination of flavours and textures. So, come join us for a little culinary adventure to Bali in December 2011.
We stayed in two locations: at Komaneka at Bisma in Ubud and in a private villa just off Jalan Laksmana in Seminyak, and ate our way around some of the moderately priced restaurants that enticed us. Yes, it’s only a few, but there’s good reason to go back and try the rest!
Komaneka at Bisma is an elegant hotel whose restaurant boasts magnificent views across an infinity edge pool and rice paddys to a gully and hillside of cascading foliage. Breakfast and a generous afternoon tea are included in the room price, with lots of food choices and moderately priced meals available throughout the day. One of its many fabulous features is the friendliness of staff, who warmly greet guests on a first name basis.
Local food: Check out the food stalls at the Ubud Markets opposite the palace. One of the best ways to do this is to take a cooking class at Casa Luna Restaurant (about $35 AUD), which includes a market tour before your food demonstration and meal. You will learn a lot about about Balinese food customs on your tour, and you can buy packaged vanilla pods or cinnamon sticks to bring home, but be sure to declare them to customs.
Ibu Oka Ubud: Babi Guling (roast suckling pig) is one of Bali’s famous fast food treats, and if you can stand the almost feral eating conditions, crammed in with other diners, probably jostling for a perch on the fence in the sun, spend $4 on a plateful at Ibu Oka Bali, opposite the temple on Jalan Suweta, Ubud.
Nomad is one of our favourite restaurants in Ubud. Situated on the main road of Ubud, Jalan Raya, not far from the palace, the staff are friendly, the atmosphere relaxed, and it’s a great place to enjoy a tasting menu of Balinese, Indonesian or fusion dishes. Food standard is consistently of a high standard. We ordered gyozas, a set of 12 tapas dishes ($10) and Dadar Gulung, a Javanese dessert: Homemade coconut palm sugar wrapped in pandan leave pancake topped with salty fresh grated coconut & palm sugar syrup. Check out the menu here.
The Dirty Duck Diner, not far from Monkey Forest, extends back from the road, with pleasant views over a quiet garden. Our tip is to NOT order the house specialty Bebek Bengil Crispy Duck; instead, try the ribs. They were some of the best we tried in Bali, whereas the duck was dry.
Clear Café in Jalan Hanoman, is a contemporary venue with raw, vegan and seafood dishes and fabulous juices. Scandinavian meets Californian beach house in design, the vaulted roof extends vertically above diners, creating an airy space. When we visited it was undergoing renovation, but it’s an uber-cool restaurant in every way, with some patrons sitting cross-legged on stools at laptops using wifi to connect, others huddled on lounge corners in intimate conversation. Food is interesting and healthy, and the juices are just out of this world!
Café Wayan, on Jalan Monkey Forest, also holds cooking classes. It’s a family-run restaurant which is a good place to try local cuisine, well priced, in an intimate garden setting.
Naughty Nuri’s, opposite the Neka Museum, is famous for its ribs, cooked on an open charcoal grill at the street front entrance to this smallish warung. Its satay chicken is also succulent and smoky. Don’t look for refinement in your eating experience; it’s a smoky martini or beer and ribs joint which packs in diners, and takes no bookings. It’s get down and dirty, lip smacking finger licking fantastic, where you can ‘Eat, Pay, Leave’ without too much fuss!
Our most memorable meal in Ubud was at Lamak in Jalan Monkey Forest. Our meals included Crab meat with young coconut lime, fresh mint and layered between crispy wontons, Seared prawns with potato gnocchi and lemongrass ginger butter sauce and Balinese bouillibaise served with star fruit, turmeric, lemongrass broth and sambal mayo. If you can afford a bit of a splurge by Balinese standards (average priced food for Australian restaurants), this upmarket venue offers delicious fusion food, a good range of drinks including wine and a sophisticated ambient atmosphere. We sat and ate alfresco in the cooler evening air, savouring every mouthful of the delicious beautifully presented food.
Only one restaurant in Ubud disappointed us: Ary’s Warung. From previous good reports we were appalled by the flies and the lack of service. Staff seemed more interested in chatting to each other or texting on their mobile phones than they did in serving customers. Despite the menu being quite interesting, within a short period two groups of diners got up and left without eating because they had not been served. With prices slightly on the pricey side, Ary’s can’t rely on its former reputation to bring customers. There are many other places in Ubud which welcome diners with fabulous food and great service and we have a long list of cuisine adventure possibilities for our next visit.
And so to the coast… Seminyak offers even more options of food choice than Ubud – ‘same same’ but different!
Ku De Ta was our first destination. The first hurdle to entry is the guards on gate duty, checking each car for bombs before you enter the driveway. Then you must pass the dress code at the door. Ku De Ta is a truly international venue to see and be seen. It’s a restaurant, bar and beach club in one, and you could be forgiven for thinking that you are on a movie set. Many people, I’m sure, go there purely to mingle, with their drink an accessory to the fact! Some lie on lounges in the sand, although it’s night time; a few, like us, have decided to sample the exquisite food. By international standards, it’s not expensive for the view, ambience and quality of service and cuisine, but it’s a far reach from the rutted dirty gutters not far down the street. We look forward to dining at nearby Potato Head on our next trip after hearing fantastic reports…
Jalan Laksmana/Jalan Oberoi is known as the ‘Eat Street’ of Seminyak, where it seems every second or third shopfront is a restaurant. We ate Italian at Trattoria, but enjoyed our night at the hip Ultimo far more, a place busting at the seams with jive, laughter and drinks. Service was slick and food great, but we don’t understand why it’s common practice for some European restaurants in coastal Bali to use MSG. It’s definitely a contrast to the more health-conscious Ubud, where we didn’t encounter its use.
On the same strip, Mykonos provides standard Greek fare at a reasonable price, and the Japanese cuisine at Kaizan is well priced and of good quality. The Japanese food was great and the drinks cheap. Combined with their efficient air conditioning and the night was a blast.
Numerous European cafés, bakeries and patisseries, such as Café Seminyak, Grocer & Grind and Café Moka sell the most delicious cakes, biscuits, macarons, breads and sandwich-type meals. For the stomach weary tourist, they’re a haven, providing European-style food and great coffee. Several had the most intricate gingerbread houses on display for Christmas, one with the roof completely covered with macarons, another complete with tiny people around the houses.
For Indonesian as well as international cuisine, it’s a must to visit Made’s Warung, a fascinating complex of some of the most upmarket boutique shops in Seminyak surrounding the restaurant itself, which sprawls out under verandas and into a tree-shaded courtyard facing a huge open bar. Biku, also a local cuisine restaurant, is a collector’s heaven. It’s quirky and eclectic, with card readings advertised on certain days. It’s renowned for High Tea, an unusual addition to its Indonesian cuisine.
Chandi on Jalan Laksmana was one of the highlights of our trip. We’d popped in during the afternoon to appraise the menu and watched as the finishing touches were made to an enormous fresh Christmas wreath, the display featured on one wall of the restaurant. We were so taken with the ambience and menu that we decided to splash out and are so glad we did! Service was attentive but not cloying, and food was fantastic organic Balinese/international fusion. We indulged in an appetizer tasting for two, which included delights such as Black pepper crab dumplings, Chicken Sisit and Seared Scallop Salad with a chaser of Watermelon soup. Mains included Seared barramundi fillet on crispy taro, with pepes mushrooms, alfalfa sprouts and a basil emulsion. With ambient surroundings, food perfectly cooked and beautifully presented, we could have been at an international restaurant almost anywhere in the world.
No trip to Bali is complete without journeying to the beach, even a food trip. Gado Gado, on the beach at Jalan Dhyana Pura, has the ultimate in beach locations. During the day, sit outside beneath umbrellas and the branches of the huge ancient tree. There are uninterrupted vistas of surfers catching rolling waves in to a sandy beach, of sunbakers and kite fliers. At night it’s one of the most romantic settings imaginable. We enjoyed European-style food for lunch – a Pistolet (French roll) with sandcrab salad, and Lamb shank which fell off the bone, accompanied by perfectly cooked and seasoned baby broad beans and carrots. With the cool sea breeze brushing our faces, we contemplated our next trip back to this island of the gods.
Note on food hygiene: Our rule of thumb about hygiene while eating in Bali is to diligently wash your hands in alcoholic hand cleanser rather than water before eating, only drink bottled water (even to clean your teeth), and avoid salad, even garnish. We checked that ice had been made from bottled water, but did risk prepared fruit salad at our hotels. Only one of us suffered from gastro, and only with a couple of mild bouts. The cure? ‘Gastro stop’ and ‘Hydralyte’, together with diluted Cottees’ red cordial. Don’t believe us? Try it!