24 Hours in Bali: A Culinary Tour

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While you may be semi-sated, don’t leave the Seminyak area yet. One of Bali’s signature sunset ceremonies, toasted with cocktails, comes every afternoon, courtesy of Ku De Ta, a sprawling, oceanside entertainment complex—including formal dining room, garden, faux-tropical-forest terrace bar (complete with tree-trunk tables), pool, and beach—where all the expat style-makers (think lots of tribal jewelry and straw market bags) converge. The draw is a boozy burnt lemon and vanilla Margarita, served with roasted chile peanuts and a view of the sun melting into the Indian Ocean. If you want to stay for a bigger party, the place comes fully into its own at night, when fire dancers and a DJ take over and the kitchen sends out fennel-crusted quail, soft-shell crab, duck confit cassoulet, and chocolate tarts. If you’re looking for more dinner and less show, though, get on the road and make the roughly one-hour drive north to inland Ubud.

This is where Bali’s transformation becomes most obvious. Once a quiet crafts and Hindu meditation village, Ubud has turned into a combination strip mall, food court, and roving bachelor party, and while that means the town’s charm is curdling, dinner, at least, has never been better. Lining the road into town, before you get to the ancient Tjampuhan Bridge, are three much-hyped restaurants. The first is Naughty Nuri’s, a warung shack–meets–Williamsburg, Brooklyn, dive diner that is a hipster cabinet of curiosities inside, with contemporary paintings, snapshots of Bali and diners, and souvenir T-shirts. Most people, though, race for the long communal alfresco tables so they can watch the house spareribs being slathered with a vinegary sauce on a roadside grill.

Close by is the much more consciously chic Mozaic. Drinks are served in a sleek lounge, where you are presented with four degustation menus to study; among the quartet is a vegetarian tasting menu and a blowout chef’s “surprize” designed for the entire table. Then you descend, for dinner itself, to a lush tropical garden patio crowded with honeymooning couples. Chef Chris Salans worked as head chef for both David Bouley and Thomas Keller and qualifies as Bali’s bona fide celebrity chef (copies of his recent glossy book, Mozaic, are stacked everywhere). His French-goes-Balinese dishes are a big splurge. Making regular appearances on the menus are Indian Ocean slipper lobster in black truffle sauce, pan-seared Tasmanian salmon buoyed by tart apple and curry meunière, milk-fed veal loin topped by smoked milk foam, and slow-roasted duck and foie gras sitting in a chilled broth of local star fruit. Depending on your taste, that’s either top dining or too overwrought for low-key Bali.

More fun and less self-conscious is the recently opened Bridges Bali just down the road, where a long terrace looks out onto a jungle gorge—a riot of drooping vines and palm trees bordered by the Wos River—and the eclectic menu jumps from very good coconutty prawn laksa to an even better twice-cooked duck breast infused with cinnamon, star anise, mandarin zest, and ginger.

Best, though, may be dinner at the defiantly homely Kafe Batan Waru, in the middle of Ubud, where the extensive list of vegetarian plates features long beans with a Sumatran red chile spice paste and a lawar salad of young jackfruit and papaya with coconut, crisped onions, and kaffir lime leaf.

Or finish the marathon back in Seminyak at Bali’s most talked about new kitchen, Mama San (sister kitchen to the still-roaring Sarong), which opened in the fall of 2011. The double-decker restaurant cum lounge cum bar—all exposed-brick walls, leather banquettes, dangling chandeliers—is packed with urban expats who said they wanted to get away from it all and then brought the party will them. But if you are keen to end the night on a note that’s part old Bali and part distinctly new, tuck into the kitchen’s whirling array of Asian street foods: a fantastically juicy tandoori chicken kebab; pork and kimchi steamed buns; Thai fish cakes with pickled cucumber; crispy lamb ribs crowned with pomegranate sauce; Hanoi pork and beef pâté; or crispy pork belly with green mango. For dessert, you can opt for the crème brûlée or choose something that tastes more purely of Bali itself, like the black sticky rice with mango and coconut cream.

Raphael Kadushin writes for a range of food and travel outlets, including Condé Nast Traveler, Epicurious, Out, and National Geographic Traveler. He previously wrote 24 Hours in Chicago for Gourmet Live.

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