Luckily for us, we had enough personal and professional contacts to fill a whole itinerary. First, on the list was Ibu Oka, a suckling pig kitchen that got so much renown after Anthony Bourdain gave it a Bourdain bump, it expanded into three different eateries. Each serves the same combination of pork, stewed vegetables, and sides made daily at the crack of dawn. The pork skin crackles, the meat is juicy and spicy, and the whole thing is delicious when washed down with some Bintang lager.
Perhaps the meal we were most excited about was Mozaic, one of San Pellegrino's Top 50 Restaurants in Asia. Think minibar, but with Asian flavors, and set on an open air patio. The menus are a series of tasting menus that combine traditional Balinese flavors with molecular gastronomy techniques. What's even better is that Texas's vegetarian tasting menu is just as delectable as mine. My sablefish carpaccio dazzles in a vanilla, macadamia, and vodka creme fraiche coating; hers subs beetroot for the fish. Beautiful, silky confied coral trout swims in a wonderful smoked milk foam while an incredibly buttery seared foie gras soaks in squab consomme with gooey chunks of manchego and gnocchi; just as my dishes are indulgent, Texas's deep brothy mushroom consomme with jackfruit, and linguine with celeriac puree and truffle are equally elegant. The experience hits its apex with my slow roasted lamb, seared to perfection atop a mamey sapote puree, and beautifully tender; Texas has a wonderful vegetable medley.
The meal's denouement is a series of sweet and savory flavors: Sainte Maure cheese with cacao pudding and orange rosemary sorbet, a pink grapefruit with campari emulsion, dark chocolate cake with starfruit sorbet, and a valrhona mousse with a green pepper corn sorbet. All in all, one of the best, if not the best meals in all of Bali.
Seniman Coffee Studio
Of the many things that define Balinese food and culture is coffee, especially in Ubud. One of the better coffee studios is Seniman, a hip loft space with some bar seating, a porch, and one large table with bench seating. The coffee is varied both in terroir, roast style, and brew method - Texas orders a coffee tasting menu that includes a granita and a coffee liqueur. What's more, each coffee comes with a little coconut cake.
A little peckish when we walk in, we also order lunch. Texas orders a stir fry of rice cubes, spinach, bean sprouts, and peanut sauce that comes together in messy but delicious bites. My dish is by far my favorite: soto ayam - a vermicelli and poached chicken soup with bean sprouts, egg, and spring onion. It's like breakfast pho, the way its oiliness perks you up is nothing short of spectacular.
Bali, especially Ubud in the post-EatPrayLove era, seems to abound with a certain type of expat: a wavy-haired Yoga-going mid forty something with more than a passing interest in fresh pressed juices. Kafe is perhaps the best representation of this ethos: a lovely shopfront with a wide menu of juices, organic Balinese fare, and some gluten-free desserts to die for - a blueberry cheesecake crumble is perhaps our strongest memory of the times we pop by.
Casa Luna Bali Cooking School
For the uninitiated, like we were, Balinese cuisine is like a mix of Thai and Malaysian and Vietnamese to use a roster that might be more familiar. It has a heavy mix of strong spices, a big herbs and grasses component, but there's a freshness that comes from not being heavily reliant on sauces. A cooking class seemed like an incredible way to familiarize ourselves with everything we had been eating over the week, and our selection of the Casa Luna Bali Cooking School could not have been better. Taught by a vibrant and joking Balinese woman, the four hour evening class took the time to explain all of the various ingredients that we would see on the island - from pandan leaf to four types of ginger to palm sugar - then proceeded to let us chop and mince our way to making sambal goreng (the island's base spice mix) in pursuit of a luxurious meal of smoked duck, long bean laware, and yellow rice. Tres magnifiques.
Fair Warung Bale
I have to be honest, we used TripAdvisor just as much on this trip as recommendations. Which is how we found ourselves in the Fair Warung Bale, a restaurant set up by a Swiss expat that donates most if not all of its proceeds to an attached health facility. That along intrigued us, but so did the reviews. A generous and messy but sumptuous plate of king prawns, and a warm bowl of tofu curry helped cement that feeling, though the real treat was the restaurant's decor; sitting up on a second floor balcony, guests can draw on a small white stone and glue it to a wall of their choosing. We're almost guaranteed now to come back to find ours a decade from now.
Gili T Night Market/Scallywags/Seafood on Jimbaran Bay
About a two hour fastboat ride from Bali are the Gili Islands, a trio of islands that are small - like ride around them on a bike in an hour small. Quaint and relaxing are two of the best words I can use for them; with no motorized vehicles on the island, the whole vibe is of a surfer's or scuba diver's retreat.
Among the many brilliant expat escapee lures here is the fresh seafood. Along the main road of Gili T between the dive shops and the gear rental huts are restaurants, almost all of whom truck out the catch of the day around sundown each afternoon, to be selected, sauced, and grilled to your choosing. Central to that is the Gili T night market, a square that sits empty in the daytime, but that fills with stalls from locals at dusk, offering the same sort of grilled seafood and kabobs - but for generally lower price points.
There may be no greater inexpensive pleasure than picking out a whole barracuda or a barramundi, watch it get slathered with butter and grilled to perfection, and then eating it up greedily with your bare hands for the price of a DC cocktail. Sides are generous too, with nine or ten different vegetable options all coming inclusive with the price. We did many nights of both the market and the beachside eatery, with our favorite restaurant being the venerable Scallywags.
For a similar pleasure on Bali itself, eating seafood on the beach at sunset on Jimbaran Bay is a comparable proposition.
Our second big meal of the trip was Chandi, a restaurant that seemed like Bali's version of Citronelle, to extend the Mozaic as minibar analogy. Here too we indulged in a tasting menu, five courses of duos, which augured incredibly full stomachs - and delivered them too.
Debate still rages between myself and Texas about whether Chandi and Mozaic was better. What's undebatable is that this meal was at least equally transcendent. A seared scallop salad is spiked with hints of pomelo and grapefruit, while a black pepper crab dumpling delightfully plays with green peas and cardamom. Richness comes to a high point when my favorite dish of the night arrives: caramelized butter fish bathed in misodashi broth wtih salmon roe and bits of corn, radish, daikon, and baby potato. It's rich and buttery and outplays what we might have thought would have been even richer: a grilled lobster dabu dabu with bell peppers and tomatoes.
The night transitions to heavier meats with Balinese-style duck wrapped around a sugar cane skewer, a sweet bit made even sweeter by the addition of grated coconut. It's wonderful, especially if you like duck, but it has a hard time measuring up to the beef rendang envelopes it comes with; a pert crispy pocket dipped in a cucumber-cilantro-chili creme fraiche that is both tangy and bright. Next comes a set of beef short ribs with bok choy which comes with it's own familiar citrus-tanged glaze; as well as a crisp pork belly with kailan and pomelo which is incredibly fatty and awesome, especially for the last main course of the night.
Dessert comes in the form of a dark cocoa fondant with ginger emulsion and crystallized spices, and roasted tamarillos with fresh passion fruit and coconut sorbet. They're actually sort of forgettable except for the chocolate cake, which pours out an almost obscene amount of rich chocolate.
If a place in Bali could sneak up on you in terms of food, it might be Sea Circus. Certainly the restaurant itself couldn't, a riot of aqua blue paneled by red, orange, and yellow glass window slats. It's a fun space, the kind of seaside shack you might find in any number of California towns - though this one sits a block from the beach itself. In fact, Texas and I remarked to each other that it seems much like the kind of space we would build out ourselves.
For a coffee studio buried in an alley in a backroom of a store in Seminyak, the one strong memory I have of this place is this: a mango cardamom smoothie.
Somewhere along this trip we were bound to have a disappointing meal or two. On the last night of our trip, with no restaurant on our docket, we decided to go with what the hotel front desk and the internet told us was the best thing left: Metis, a grand restaurant with an expansive menu founded by a French chef who was one of the original great chefs of Bali.
The menu at least read the part, with a peculiar fascination with trios. To wit, we order two ourselves, me a decadent foie gras trio, her a main course trio of local fish: coral trout, cod, and Tasmanian salmon. Taken by itself, the meal is perfectly good, a treat if it comes on the first night of the trip. But given the freshness, the highs, and the daring that we've eaten on this trip, in places both high-end and hole-in-the-wall, there's a decided mutedness with which the cold foie preparations play out. Relative to the melting coral trout at Mozaic, this one, sitting atop some potatoes and artichokes seem lifeless; all of the things we eat just seem a hint too thin or uninspired. Only a boneless roasted quail, stuffed with mushrooms, is fascinating on the palate.
On our last morning in Bali, we grab a prime seat on the patio of La Lucciola - a restaurant described to us as a Bali institution. It being brunch, we indulge in the restaurant's specials of the day which do an incredible job of blending the freshness we've taken to associate with Bali and very traditional Italian cooking. A set of fried and stuffed zucchini flowers ooze nicely and lightly with mozzarella and hints of black olive, tomato, and basil, while a housemade gnocchi in beef ragu eschews what could have been a heavier hand for a feathery approach to its tomato-based sauce. My favorite is a salad of roast duck with shaved apple, watercress, and toasted hazelnut, a perfect blend of savory, sour, bitter, and sweet that dances and crunches in brilliant ways.
Ku De Ta/Potato Head
Still, we're not content to leave Bali without pigging out some more - all the better to board the plane with some excess baggage in our bellies. We hit up a pair of the island's famed beach clubs, the venerable Ku De Ta and the slightly more relaxed Potato Head. Here we take to noshing on appetizer sized portions: a soft shell crab salad of green papaya and beans that hints at chili and lime, but is exactly the kind of food that keeps with the airiness of the beach; and a pizza that feels better suited for autumn (roasted pumpkin, goat cheese, pine nuts, truffled honey, rocket) but fills us all the same. The whole process is finished with a green tea creme brulee that is a touch too sweet and a little too weird, if not for the incredible series of cocktails we've slowly imbibed over the course of a few hours; the cocktail revolution is alive and well in Bali, and these two places - with Potato Head the slight favorite - are a spectacular testament to that.