Bali is bigger than many tourists imagine, taking three to four hours by car to traverse north to south or east to west. And while tourists continue to come to surf and shop, the smart ones now visit to eat too.
The major restaurant areas are in pockets across the island. Nusa Dua, at the southern tip of the island, houses mostly five-star hotels, many with five to six in-house restaurants each.
Around Ubud, the hotels are much smaller and more boutique in style. But it is the standalone restaurants, mostly in the Seminyak-Kerobokan and Ubud areas, that make the Bali of today so unique.
Gastronomic finery: In Bali, tuck into foie gras seared to perfection at the beachfront Breeze restaurant.
Twenty years ago, a tourist meal outside the major hotels consisted exclusively of rice or noodle dishes, with a bit of meat or seafood, at roadside stalls.
Today's Bali offers an amazing selection of cuisines at affordable prices, with the very best available for about $70 per person. Double that for a seven- to eight-course degustation dinner with wine.
There are also many mid-range restaurants that charge $30-40 per person.
The recent opening of Blossom at the Sentosa Private Villas, Kerobokan, marked another milestone in the Bali food scene. Many of the dishes trace back to Royal Thai cuisine and are served in surroundings that can only be called elegantly casual. Chef Will Meyrick honed his skills at Sydney's Longrain.
Savour a beautifully presented dish of Thai grilled scallops at Blossom.
What's to eat? Eggnets are a mix of chicken and prawns combined with coconut, caramel, beansprouts, crushed peanuts and mint, then rolled in a net of egg.
The Thai Grilled Scallops are another example of simple ingredients becoming complex combinations of taste. Fat scallops sit on ceramic spoons, topped with shreds of sweet pork, lime leaves, coconut, Thai basil and a peanut nam jihm.
Thai salads are so refreshing, and this is where some of the wildest taste combinations can be found. A classic is the Crisp Salmon Salad tossed with watermelon, mint, Thai basil and roasted chilli with a shallot dressing.
Lime-cured snapper is tossed with shredded green mango, lemongrass, rose apple and dried shrimp. Meat is served with some of the most intense sauces and flavours in Thai cuisine.
The Pork Hock has a tamarind tamerillo sauce that makes the small crunchy pieces intensely sweet while a dash of the accompanying nam pla prik cuts the sweetness.
Not far away from Blossom is another of Bali's best. Breeze, sited on the beach in front of The Samaya hotel, is nestled between two more illustrious neighbours, neither of whom serve food of the same quality or value.
Young German executive chef Torsten Shubert's entree of Pan Seared Foie Gras and Sweetbread-Asparagus Ravioli in a morel cream sauce is a stunner, with the highly complex combinations dissolving in your mouth as one taste.
Enchanting entrees: Try the Crab Meat Rillettes served with fresh grapes and vinaigrette at Lamak
After this perfect entree, go for a Duck Tasting Platter, in which the bird is done three ways. Two generous slices of pink US duck breast sit on small pumpkin gnocchis in a cola-soda-chilli sauce.
Stuffed duck neck resides on a perfect mound of vegetable tabbouleh salad with red onion jam, while a smoked duck and mushroom ragout sits on a base of corn and roasted pepper relish.
Across the road from The Samaya is a Balinese gem, Sate Bali. There, a professional executive chef presides over a classy little warung (stall).
Tum Bebek is minced duck, moist and tasty, wrapped in banana leaves, then steamed. Ayam Pelalah is shredded chicken tossed with chilli and lime. It is essentially a dry dish but is far too often too dry and either bland or overworked with chilli.
At Sate Bali, it is perfect. For a bonus, shards of the fried crispy skin are included to give the dish an added crunch. Lunch or dinner is $12 per head.
Not too far away is Warung Gossip on a road that winds through the rice fields, opposite the Kerobokan Jail. The shed surrounded by old wooden tables and chairs under the trees is nothing flashy but the Indonesian food is great.
Most Indonesian and Padang food is pre-cooked but at Warung Gossip it is served straight from the kitchen. Rice and your choice of beef, chicken, fish, tofu, vegetables, an egg soaked in a spicy sambal and chunks of crunchy tempe studded with cracked peanuts are yours for $6.
If you want a romantic dinner under the stars, Loloan, also in Kerobokan, is a must. Here, it's Asian fusion fare by Canadian chef-owner Paul Boehmer.
Loloan used to be at a lagoon behind the Petitenget temple, but now it is a stylish restaurant in the midst of ponds. Dining in the lush garden courtyard is about as good as it gets in Bali.
Start with a dish straight from Maxims in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, called Mang Tay Nua Cua. It is an asparagus and shrimp soup floating with a mushroom wonton and poached quail egg.
Goi Cuon is a confit of duck with herbs and vermicelli, wrapped in rice paper with a sweet mango sauce. Rendang Kambing is a lamb shank but this is in a Sumatran curry with sweet-potato fries and a French bean-and-pomelo salad.
Red Snapper Piccata is snapper fillets in a coconut-macadamia nut crust with asparagus sushi and fresh palm hearts, yellow pepper vinaigrette and chilli oil.
The tasting menu of five courses at Loloan is only $40 per head.
The cultural centre of Bali, Ubud and its environs are rapidly becoming a culinary centre as well. With its elevated altitude, dining alfresco in the cool of the evening is the norm.
What has not already been said about Mozaic? It has won so many international awards. This little garden restaurant showcases the talents of French-American chef-owner Chris Salans.
Your choice is from one of two degustation menus, the Classic Mozaic or the Experimental. If you are open to new taste sensations, go for the Experimental.
The menus change every day, but an example of the possible offerings includes a tender chunk of lobster tail topped with diced foie gras in a red-wine reduction or a dessert of mixed berries baked in a crisp filo pastry, accompanied by a pineapple sorbet with sweet basil.
Similar food quality, but in a majestic setting on the ridge of a river valley, is found at CasCades at The Viceroy. The chef is a young Belgian, Jean-Francois Brouck, and his seven-course degustation menu includes such exotic courses as Pan Fried Foie Gras with an Asian-flavoured Duck Confit Ravioli or an Alaskan King Crab Salad with shiitake mushroom cannelloni, a wasabi mayonnaise and Ikura.
Enchanting entrees: The Batagor, which comprises mackerel, tofu and vegetables, at Warung Enak
Lamak serves an Asian-fusion cuisine in one of Bali's most elegant restaurants. It's fine dining but without the high cost. The original Made Wijaya design of the restaurant complements the food and service, and Bali's nicest cocktail bar just tops it all off.
Crab Meat Rillettes is on a base of fresh grapes and vinaigrette, and a not-so-Asian entrée that it is famous for is Escargots, served with the most perfect Café de Paris butter.
Another Made Wijaya design, and totally different, is Warung Enak. This is not a warung but a fine restaurant serving a selection of all the best dishes from Indonesia.
The Asinan Jakarta - yam bean, carrots, cucumber, beansprouts and tofu, tossed with a Carambola vinaigrette and served in a crunchy little bird's nest of fried egg noodles - is refreshingly different. The Batagor from West Java combines deep-fried minced mackerel, tofu and vegetables on a wonton sheet with peanut sauce and bitter cucumbers.
Over at the Como Shambhala Estate at Begawan Giri, a young Australian chef, Chris Miller, is doing incredible things with what is almost a pure vegetarian menu.
The restaurant Glow is perched atop a ridge above the sacred Ayung River, and the food is almost as heavenly. A Lentil & 7 Grain Wrap is just that. The flour of seven high-fibre grains is the base, and the wrap is stuffed with healthy lentils, asparagus, tomato salsa, avocado and alfalfa sprouts.
Enchanting entrees: A healthy vegetable wrap at Glow
So the secret's out. Bali is more than just sand and sea. Come before the queues get too long at the eateries.
The writer, who is based in Bali, runs a food website, balieats.com.
5 things to do
1 Visit the Neka Museum in Jalan Raya Sanggingan in Ubud. A whole history of Balinese art is showcased, including examples from Han Snel, Donald Friend, Walter Spies and Arie Smit. The Lempard Pavillion has a collection of drawings from I. Gusti Nyoman Lempard, Bali's most acclaimed artist.
2 Go to Ibu Oka's small Babi Guling stand (opposite the side entrance to the King's Palace in Ubud). Babi Guling, the most sacred of all Balinese feasts, is roughly translated as suckling pig but it really isn't, as a whole adult pig is used. The secret is the ultra slow roasting and basting (five hours) and only Ibu Oka does it properly, with no traces of fat left.
The first pig arrives at 11am and the hungry queue is already waiting. It will cost you $6 for a treat of hot tender pork flesh, infused with Balinese spices, and rice. Be Balinese and eat it with your fingers.
3 Watch the Kecak Dance, which is performed in many temples in Ubud as well as a few in other areas. Some 50 bare-chested men dance around the fire. They are both the actors and choir, and their chants will haunt you for many hours afterwards.
At the end of the dance, an older man performs the Sanghyang Jaran dance, and ploughs through the flames.
4 Eat crispy duck, which was invented by an Ubud institution, Bebek Bengil, when it opened in 1990. The duck is marinated in Balinese spices before being deep-fried, until very crunchy. Many other local restaurants attempt this dish but only at Bebek Bengil (aka The Dirty Duck Diner) is it worth trying.
5 Eat Bebek Betutu, essentially roast duck in banana leaf which is second only to Babi Guling in importance in ceremonial feasts at the temples of Bali. A complex spice mix is assembled (shallots, garlic, lemongrass, lime leaves, candlenuts, ginger, turmeric, kencur root, chillies, peppercorns and coriander), rubbed into the skin of the duck and then inserted inside before the duck is wrapped in banana leaves and placed overnight in embers under the ground.
It is a wonderful treat that normally requires pre-ordering at most restaurants, except at Lotus eateries which pre-order so many themselves every day.
1 Do not exchange foreign currency in shops, even if they may claim to be official money-changers, if you are staying in the main Kuta-Legian-Semiyak tourist belt. The real official ones - such as the biggest, PT Central Kuta, which has a few branches, including one in the Ramayana Shopping Mall in Denpasar - actually look like small banks with tellers behind glass fronts. The exception to this rule is in Ubud where all money-changers are in shops and no one tries to charge you commission or rip you off.
2 Do not flag down taxis with no meters. If you do not have pre-arranged transport or have not hired a car, look for metered taxis, a relatively new addition to Bali. But ensure that the meter is working and do not get drawn into a fare discussion, unless you are travelling one-way over a long distance.
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