What you quickly learn about Seminyak, the tourist enclave on Bali’s west coast – apart from its crippling traffic congestion – is an obsession with eating well.
Everyone has a favourite restaurant. Stuck in an endless traffic jam, as mopeds whizz by, the chatter in the minivan is all about gourmet cuisine.
People talk about Sardine, which serves international and French-inspired seafood creations by Californian chef Michael Shaheen, and beach club establishment Ku De Ta, where Byron Bay’s Ben Cross prepares Mediterranean-inspired cuisine while American pastry chef Jeff Goldfarb has set up a laboratory to develop new flavours. Then there’s Mama San, run by former Longrain chef Will Meyrick, offering an inventive pan-Asian menu.
Bali is undergoing a food revolution, with overseas chefs setting up establishments at a fraction of the cost of doing so back home, catering to the taste experiences demanded from Bali’s Australian, European and mainland Indonesian visitors.
Having spent a good 90 minutes stuck on Jalan Petitenget, we give up on sampling some cheap local fare at Warung Sulawesi, a traditional Indonesian restaurant serving rice dishes, curries and stir-fries, and pull up instead at Latin American meat joint Barbacoa – a relatively new addition to the hipster list.
Barbacoa is a big open-plan establishment with mosaic-tiled floors and high ceilings. Near the entrance, a wood fire crackles below what makes the restaurant’s signature dish – slowly roasting whole pigs basted in chimichurri (an Argentinian herb and garlic sauce) – which must be ordered in advance.
Barbacoa is run by former Sydney chef Adam Dundas-Taylor, whose CV also includes stints at Nobu and Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen, both in London. We get a table outside and order a selection of tapas. Highlights include tender Cuban pulled pork sliders ($4.50) with pickled red onion, aioli and tomato, and salt brined chicken winglets with agave and pumpkin seed powder ($6.50). All are washed down with Bintang, the local brew.
Dundas-Taylor says he originally planned to open a Mexican restaurant in Seminyak with chef and business partner Sean Prenter, but was forced to “regroup” after a rush of Mexican establishments opened up in a short space of time.
“We kept a little bit of the Mexican tapas and then mixed it with my love of Argentinian charcoal cooking and my knowledge of Peruvian cooking from my days spent working at Nobu.”
High demand for international fare
While demand for international fare is high, competition among restaurateurs is intense. Offering something with an international flavour does not guarantee success. “It’s very important that you become one of the 10 restaurants on the dining circle in Bali,” Dundas-Taylor says. “A lot of people think Bali is dense in people and customers, but actually the food industry is quite [the] opposite.
“I feel that Bali is calling for a certain amount of international food. What some people may not realise is that the market in Bali is already saturated. and location and price point has a lot to do with your success. There are many restaurants struggling,”
In the new luxury Double-Six Seminyak hotel overlooking the beach and next door to the crazily popular Cocoon bar and nightclub, Sydney chef Robert Marchetti has created international food experiences with the backing of hotel owner and prominent Bali businessmen, Kadek Wiranatha.
Marchetti’s Seminyak Italian – his first venture here – overlooks the meandering hotel swimming pool (the longest in Bali) with gorgeous beach views. It includes a glassed-in pasta room where fresh spaghetti, ravioli and penne are made by hand. In another glass cubicle hang mortadella, salami and prosciutto alongside Italian cheeses, all part of Marchetti’s desire to create a “great fun Italian eatery” with local produce.
“Burrata (an Italian cheese made from mozzarella and cream) is made specifically for us on the island,” he says. “We use lots of local seafood and the mountains of Bali grow plenty of great fresh produce.”
Menu highlights include Granchio alla Veneta, hand-picked crab meat with garlic and chilli on a bed of mascarpone polenta ($9) and for dessert, tiramasu ($9) scooped straight from the baking tray at the table.
In October, Marchetti will open the Plantation Grill, a Great Gatsby-styled diner, specialising in dry aged meat and line-caught seafood cooked over open grills and in wood-fired ovens.
Marchetti says Bali has really evolved over the past five to 10 years to become a world-class food destination. And it just continues to get better, he continues. “It’s a really creative island in every sense and the possibilities are endless.”
Travel writer Ryan Ver Berkmoes, author of the Lonely Planet Bali & Lombok guide, understands the apparent dissonance between location and food. “Just because people are on Bali doesn’t mean they want to eat Balinese and Indonesian food every meal,” he says. And I say that as someone who loves nasi campur (lunchtime plate of mixed dishes) and babi guling (succulent roasted and spiced suckling pig).
Ver Berkmoes, who grew up in California, says a big part of Bali is eating out. “Bali has hit the sweet spot with a whole slew of excellent restaurants serving foods from around the world that you can eat for a fraction of what the same meal would cost at home.”
“The onslaught of tourists means that if you’re good, you do great business yet your costs are low, even if your food is grown organic or sourced internationally.”
The only thing that’s more expensive is the wine – around $50 a bottle for good Australian plonk – courtesy of Indonesia’s “insane Indonesian tax system.”
Ver Berkmoes’s advice: “Enjoy the $10 mains and learn to love Bintang.”
The writer was a guest of Double-Six.
This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review