A well-travelled friend recently returned from a 40th birthday celebration in Bali and, with eyes wide, raved about the restaurants she'd visited. "I ate better there than I did in Paris," she sighed.
Paris it ain't (yet) but dining in Bali today has a definite French flavour - with side orders of innovative Australian fare, some famous Shanghai dumplings, and resonant base notes of Indonesian regional dishes. Itinerant cooks once chose this island as a paradise posting to pad out their CVs; now a new breed of chefs are putting down roots, often marrying local and immersing themselves in their adopted culture. Chefs like Will Meyrick, formerly at Longrain and Jimmy Liks in Sydney, who's assembled a "library" of Asian cooking experts serving everything from Peking duck to murtabak and Sumatran specialties. Or Franco-American Chris Salans of Ubud's modish Mozaic, who, after a decade as standard-bearer for refined dining in Bali, knows where to source nutmeg fruit in season (from the King of Banda, Des Alwi) and a white honey that's produced by extraordinarily lazy bees just once every seven years. He has to travel to a volcano in neighbouring Java to get the stuff.
Meanwhile, Nicolas "Doudou" Tourneville and Said Alem, the French duo who put Balinese dining on the map when they opened Kafe Warisan at Kerobokan more than a decade ago, have graduated to a sprawling but sleek restaurant on Petitenget Road, the island's new gourmet pulse. "Ten years ago we couldn't even find a pot of mustard here," says Tourneville. "But it's very easy now. From Japan we get fresh scallops; from Australia the beef, of course, lamb, some condiments; from France the cheese, oysters, caviar, foie gras and white asparagus; from Italy the burrata and truffles."
Today Bali is drawing record crowds of ravenous tourists flocking to one of Asia's most dynamic dining destinations where they can feast on everything from sambal to sablé. Here's our guide to some of the best eating experiences on the island right now.
Sip Kuta's tourist drag wasn't known for fine dining until Christian Vannequé opened Sip, a pitch-perfect Parisian brasserie and wine bar, in 2008. Vannequé, a 40-year veteran of the restaurant scene, became the youngest chef/sommelier at Paris's three-star La Tour d'Argent in the 1970s, and his abiding passion is obvious here. What he claims is Indonesia's finest wine list is split into "easy-going" (read: affordable) bottles, a "sommelier's corner" of New World and interesting second-string Bordelais wines, and a "wine climax" collection of elite drops including '97 Penfolds Grange and a 2000 Château Mouton Rothschild. In the kitchen, Michel Guérard alum Patrick Chauchereau prepares Gallic classics such as leeks vinaigrette, steak frites and a hearty Toulouse cassoulet. Vannequé places equal emphasis on quality and value, offering a $25 three-course prix fixe menu. 16a Jalan Raya Seminyak, Kuta (opposite Bintang supermarket), +62 361 730 810.
Every evening a glamorous ritual unfolds above Jimbaran Bay as Bali's shiny set makes the pilgrimage to Ayana Resort and Spa for sundown cocktails at Rock Bar. This desirable drinking platform poised above the crashing surf is reached via a funicular that takes just eight guests at a time, so long waits are not unusual. Smart drinkers leave heels at home and take the stairs instead - not as stylish but a far quicker route to liquid refreshment. Dress circle is on the top deck where black-clad bar staff toil endlessly to slake tropical island thirsts, but the bar's recent extension from 100 to 236 seats ensures there's room for all-comers. Food-wise, the bar snack du jour is chicken popcorn. For anything more substantial wander past the ocean-front pool to Kisik, Ayana's sand-floored five-star take on Jimbaran's seafood barbecue strip. Cocktails from $18. Ayana Resort and Spa, Jalan Karang Mas Sejahtera, Jimbaran, +62 361 702 222.
Behind its stone feature wall on busy Jalan Petitenget, newcomer Sardine boasts the Bali diner's latest must-have accessory - a private rice paddy. Agriculture has bowed to café culture in these parts, but savvy operators (Sardine and Métis among them) are realising that customers desire authenticity in the paddock as well as on the plate. Sardine delivers on all fronts, with glistening rice fields bordered by bananas, an airy pavilion with a sleek bar of polished bamboo and a menu starring fresh seafood and organic produce from Sardine's own farm. Offerings change slightly each day but might include a saffron bisque of crab and rockfish or blackened mahi mahi fillets with vegetables from the Munduk farm. Sunday afternoon tea dances are a popular way to recover from Saturday night, but mind the fiery arak-laced cocktails. Main courses average about $22. 21 Jalan Petitenget, Kerobokan, +62 361 738 202.
The sensational Alila Villas Uluwatu, poster child for new Indonesian modernism and pet resort of the jet set, delivers substance as well as style at its two clifftop restaurants. Chef Stefan Zijta - ex-Shy, one of Jakarta's best restaurants - presides over contemporary fine dining at Cire and over enthusiastically traditional Indonesian at Warung. We dined at the latter, swooning over salads of green papaya and prawn and shredded chicken with chilli and lime, a parade of satays (the snail version was amazing) and a warm, embracing soup of green papaya with mahi mahi and prawn, self-seasoned with morsels of long red chilli. Other standouts were the pork rib with young jackfruit and, to finish, a champion coconut sorbet. Shared plates and communal dining around a nine-metre ulin wood table are the go; for courting couples, intimate tables nestle indoors by fragrant fruit bowls and spices or alfresco above the ocean. Chef's selection menus from $43. Alila Villas Uluwatu, Jalan Belimbing Sari, Banjar Tambiyak, Desa Pecatu, +62 361 848 2166.
Métis Cool breezes play over blinding green rice paddies at Métis, one of beachside Bali's chicest new addresses. Low-slung white leather armchairs, evening candlelight and Scandi-inspired hardware create a sophisticated colonial setting for Nicolas Tourneville's mostly French-Med cuisine. The Kafe Warisan pioneers have shifted up a gear at this stylish 350-seat Kerobokan compound. "We tried to keep all the good ideas from Warisan - like the terrace, the menus and the atmosphere - but this is more modern, more up to date," says Tourneville. Classic Warisan dishes such as roast mushrooms stuffed with snails still dominate, but the menu now extends to inventive Japanese and Middle Eastern plates. We tried the silky fresh Tasmanian smoked salmon dressed in a river of orange, green and black roe served with (too thick) blini, crème fraîche and capers. Then a clever redux of a Niçoise comprising poppy-seed-crusted yellowfin tuna grilled rare and served on a kindling pile of green beans, pitted Kalamatas and baby potatoes, seasoned with balsamic vinegar and pesto. Métis is all things to all-comers, from private cellar dinners for 10 people to $10 for a set two-course lunch. 6 Jalan Petitenget, Kerobokan Kelod, Kuta, +62 361 737 888.
Made and her family opened their roadside warung or food stall at Kuta in 1969, serving consistent and often very good Indonesian meals to locals - and gradually to expats and tourists too. The warung has since morphed into a bustling restaurant and Seminyak franchise where guests gather at communal tables to feast on a please-all menu of Indonesian, western, Japanese and Thai specialties - everything from guacamole to gado gado. It's a winning formula; a new extension makes the evergreen Made's Warung one of the largest restaurants on the island. Jalan Raya Seminyak, Kuta, +62 361 732 130; Jalan Pantai, Kuta, +62 361 755 297.
Mozaic Survivor-style burning torches illuminate the lush bamboo- and palm-fringed outdoor dining room at Mozaic, Chris Salans's dégustation-only institution in Ubud. Diners enter a luminous lounge bar of marble floors and crystal chandeliers before spilling into the perfumed garden of tinkling streams and twinkling candles. Salans, an alumnus of Thomas Keller's Bouchon, offers four dégustations. Our Discovery Menu began with a platter of fragrant ingredients hinting at dishes to come. Kaffir lime featured in the first entrée of grilled yellowfin tuna with kaffir lime dressing, fennel salad and a tiny crown of caviar. The baby starfruit or belimbing, picked from Salans's home garden, appeared in a "pre-dessert" of ripe starfruit sorbet spiked with crystallised asterix-shaped chips. But the hero of our meal was the real dessert, a fragrant filo parcel of fresh passionfruit cream with a smear of incredible cardamom caramel, with gorgeous coconut sorbet and milk jelly on the side. Service here is as sharp as the food - we're told, sotto voce, that the sommelier is a local prince. Dégustation menus from about $92. Wine matches $78 extra, or $120 for premium drops. Or BYO - corkage is $35 per bottle. Jalan Raya Sanggingan, Ubud, +62 361 975 768.
Sarong Chef Will Meyrick has a habit of creating dining sensations. In Sydney it was his fantastic Thai food (and killer cocktails) at Jimmy Liks in the Cross. In Bali he's wowing crowds with Sarong, a sultry, rustic-meets-rich space of chandeliers and candles, billowing curtains and breezy bale. With long-time chef collaborator Palm by his side, terrific Thai food is guaranteed, but Meyrick's kitchen line-up also includes specialist Indian and murtabak chefs, plus "an old lady who used to run a warung who's a wonderful Sumatran cook". We dined casually on betel leaves laden with salmon, prawns, galangal and coriander (zing-alicious) chased with an Italian Margarita of tequila, Campari, sweet vermouth and lemon juice. It made a convincing case for tampering with cocktail classics. Stay tuned for Sarong's modern Chinese offshoot, Porcelain, due to debut mid-year opposite the Bodyworks Spa on Jalan Seminyak. Main courses priced at around $19 for dinner. 19 Jalan Petitenget, Kerobokan, Kuta, +62 361 737 809.
Bumbu Bali Swiss owner Heinz von Holzen champions authentic Balinese cooking through his small empire of restaurants, accommodation and a popular cooking school in Tanjung Benoa, just by Nusa Dua. Diners at Bumbu Bali tuck into satays and salads, banana leaf-wrapped meats and glistening fresh seafood in a village-like setting of thatch-roofed pavilions or alfresco beneath scented frangipanis. Classic rijsttafel, a sort of Indonesian smorgasbord, is the standing order and costs around $39 a head ($26 for vegetarians). There are cultural performances on Wednesdays and Fridays from 8pm. Jalan Pratama, Tanjung Benoa, Nusa Dua; +62 361 774 502.
Kayuputi The luxurious St Regis resort of 124 suites and villas in lavish landscaped gardens by guru Bill Bensley (Oberoi, Four Seasons) has many remarkable features, from the Remède Spa and King Cole Bar (its signature Bloody Mary features jicama, cucumber and brown sugar) to an orchid pavilion and hammock garden. But most visitors make a beeline for the ethereal white pavilion of Kayuputi to dine beside the sea on chef Oscar Perez's inspiring international cuisine. Book a prized terrace table above the beach and the frangipani-fringed pool and start with Alaskan king-crab maki rolls or Pacific oysters with ponzu, soy and ginger dressing. The Philippines-born Perez came here from W Maldives but grew up in Europe. His classic French training shines in a dish of seared free-range chicken with duck foie gras, and a spectacular dessert of violet-flavoured diplomat and blueberry sablé Breton capped with a spun-sugar dome and towering antenna. It looks as though Dr Seuss has been let loose in the kitchen but the flavours are far from comical. Average three-course dinner price around $100. St Regis Bali Resort, Kawasan Pariwisata, Nusa Dua, +62 361 8478 111.
Ibu Oka Ubud
This humble eatery across from the royal palace in Ubud has a great reputation for fast food, Bali-style. From 11am daily the kitchen churns out hundreds of serves of the island's signature dish, babi guling. Succulent cuts of roast suckling pig capped with a rasher of crackling are delivered on paper plates to diners who sit cross-legged and shoeless on floor mats. The $4 special babi guling comes with rice and sayur, vegetables cooked with coconut milk and shallots. Jalan Suweta, Ubud
Ku De Ta Miami meets Ibiza at Ku De Ta, the landmark restaurant, bar and beach club that defines hedonistic Bali holidays. Perhaps most popular for its sunset cocktails, August party season and beachfront daybeds, Ku De Ta is challenging perceptions via the accomplished modern global cuisine of chef Phillip Davenport. We lingered over a long lunch of crisp salmon rolls, vitello tonnato with smoked tuna mayo, the cool textures of Vietnamese coleslaw with prawn and chicken, and a wonderful orecchiette with spicy pork sausage and broccoli. Davenport, a former head chef at Sydney's Hugos, is delivering great wafer-thin pizze here - try the spiced minced lamb version. Desserts are by renowned pastry chef Will Goldfarb, formerly of New York's Room 4 Dessert. With leisurely brunches, resident DJs, and kid-friendly Family Dayze every Sunday, there's plenty to like about this place. Three courses $65-$100. 9 Jalan Kayu Aya, Seminyak, +62 361 736 969.
If Sarong is chef Will Meyrick's elegant fine diner, Mamasan is her breezy but beautiful sibling. In this shophouse-style space of exposed brick, buttoned leather lounges and stunning mural portrait of Chinese girl in cheong sam, diners tuck into Meyrick's terrific pan-Asian menu that cherrypicks the continent from Indian thali to Singapore chicken. Retire to the sexy, smoky upstairs bar for after-dinner cocktails - the coconut mojito is outstanding. Jalan Raya Kerobokan 135.
From the first mouthful of creamy cassava blackened with Japanese bamboo, you know you've found a diamond in the rough at Teatro. Behind this modest shopfront near Seminyak Square, young Papuan-born chef Mandif Warokka has created an intimate 26-seat restaurant where every plate is a delicious surprise. Jalan Kayu Aya Block C, no. 1-2 (opposite Elite Havens).
Fire at W
Ignore the overcooked interiors and focus instead on the progressive, quality cuisine by Australian executive chef Richard Millar? (ex-Jonah's Whale Beach and The Point in Albert Park). Local bluefin tuna belly with sea grapes and egg white pearls will raise expectations, but his unforgettable chawan mushi, Japanese savoury custard rendered here with foie gras, crab and chicken, will exceed them. Jalan Petitenget, Kerobokan.
While crowds flock to the dramatic Rock Bar at Ayana Resort & Spa, the Seminyak cool crowd has discovered Sundara, quite possibly the poshest beach club in town. The mood is upscale Survivor chic with blazing braziers, padded teak armchairs and sofas perched above Jimbaran Beach. What it lacks in direct sunset views it makes up for with an innovative drinks list (curated by Catalan cocktail maestro Javier de las Muelas?), the brilliant standalone bistro (check the charcuterie counter) and a 55-metre infinity-edge pool. Four Seasons Resort at Jimbaran Bay.
Glow @ Como Shambala
Most Australians could probably use a liver and gall bladder flush after a week in Bali. This restorative concoction of citrus juices, ginger, flaxseed oil and turmeric root is an option, but definitely not obligatory, at the island's premier spa retreat. Set in an open pavilion above a lush gorge beside the Ayung River, Como Shambala's breezy Glow restaurant offers views to terraced fields, unlimited birdsong and a menu as raw and bio as it is delicious. Como Shambala Estate, Ubud.
This feature was updated in October 2013.