Naturally, while taking a break from the NHL Playoffs this week, I noticed a blog post from someone raving about the incredibly dry and beautiful weather they’re having in Bali this week. Only a few weeks removed from our short and partially rainy excursion to Southeast Asia’s most westernized beach destination, first this bothered me a bit. But unlike many visitors, one thing we’ve seen countless times are beautiful sunsets. With The Annual haze Event taking an 18 month break from Penang, skies are crystal clear and unlike last year’s El Nino event, the rain brings amazing arrays of cloud formations almost daily. One of the few things I’ll miss once we move to Thailand in July, sunsets aren’t high on our must do list and we mostly went to Bali to eat. And of course to sneak in some quality beach time despite living in a “beach community” that looks more like a stretch of dirty eroded sand with some shanty vendor stalls.
Possibly the most interesting fact about Bali from a culinary point of view is the amazingly large amount of pork dishes. As the world’s most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia should be the last place in the world you’d go for a bacon cheeseburger or a side of baby back ribs smothered in bar-b-q sauce. Bucking the trend, Bali’s population is about 80% Hindu which means Halal food is not the norm and hog heaven takes the place of chicken flavored everything. Oddly, I love pork more than Diane despite her Chinese heritage and choosing where to indulge in lip smacking fall off the bone deliciousness is one of the biggest challenges when you only have five nights. While you can find Indonesian variations of Malaysian style food like Nasi Campur, few western tourists flock to the island to sample local cuisine. And that’s a shame because unlike the very strange Indonesian version of Mee Goreng which is basically western style fried chow mein with some protein instead of Penang’s delicious mix of spicy tomato based sauce with delicious noodles, lime, and squid, Balinese is a unique and tasty style of Indonesian food and you shouldn’t miss it. With so many restaurants, finding what you want is daunting so we mostly searched “10 best xxxx style restaurants in Bali” and came up with some winners.
Presenting my very unscientific guide to eating in Bali, here’s a rundown of what we ate and why you might use our recommendations if you’re contemplating a trip but hate wasting time on your device searching for a good place to eat. Deciding to go with the on-site restaurant of our hotel due to our late arrival time, it actually has a great reputation and is certainly worth your time if you find yourself staying in Legian. Choosing Bali Niksoma Beach Resort as our base for exploration, Hitana is a five-star restaurant worthy of its top ten rating on TripAdvisor. Potentially discouraging if you happen to eat their very average and mostly uneventful buffet breakfast that’s included in the room price, dinner is a different animal altogether. Offering a wide array of seafood, meats, chops, pasta and some local options, we started off with one of their specialty cocktails that were two for one (probably due to low season). One of the best drinks I’ve had on vacation, the Lychee Martini is perfection in a glass.
Probably the only unspectacular part of the meal, the salad was average with excessively oily dressing that desperately needed some vinegar so we suggest a different appetizer but thankfully, what followed was nothing short of beautiful. Always opting for satay done right, Indonesian style satay features a lot of peanut butter and Hitana’s version was creamy and delicious with a mix of beef and pork. Also big fans of lamb, we’re always surprised how the rest of the globe outside of North America eats so much of it. Ordering lamb chops done in a red wine based sauce, the presentation was beautiful and the chef came out to ask us how we liked it. Being outside high season, we found ourselves almost dining alone at 9 PM and the service is a total 360 from Penang where every restaurant is overstaffed but the server never so much as gives you look, never mind asking how your food is or bringing the bill. Reiterating why Bali attracts millions more westerners than Malaysia, a world-class dinner with appetizer, cocktails and dessert clocks in at just under $32 USD. Honorable mention goes to the fresh shrimp chips that we soon learned are a staple side dish in Bali. A great overall meal, we highly recommend listening to TripAdvisor (which we always take with a grain of salt depending on who’s writing the reviews).
Our first full day in Bali was a goof off day and we had just enough hours of sunshine at the pool before a pouring mid afternoon rain forced us into the room where we searched the internet for a good Indonesian style restaurant within walking distance. Googling “Best Indonesian food” brings up a myriad of websites with hundreds of choices so we decided to narrow it down to “Top 10”. Understanding that food reviews are totally subjective, Google’s mysterious proprietary methods that segregate millions of results usually return at least one choice that’s relatively OK . Scouring the top five and wishing to find somewhere walkable from our hotel, we chose Kopi Pot in Kuta. Best described by its fairly accurate website depiction listed below, the food is what made this place worth your time;
Bali’s version of the classic continental street-side café or restaurant. Fronting Kuta’s vibrant and bustling main street, Jalan Legian, it is the perfect place for people-watching from morning till late evening, either from tables set amongst gardens and grass-roofed pavilions, or from the stylish Lone Palm Bar – built around a living coconut palm growing right through its roof.
Offering two menus, we wanted authentic Indonesian food but I neglected my usual tour guide duties by not realizing that Bali’s signature dish, Babi Guling (roast suckling pig) is a specialty item that often requires 24 hour notification in low season. Not even offered on their local style menu, we missed out this trip but our favorite Indonesian style specialty food isn’t roast pig (We had the Hawaiian version our honeymoon in Kauai); it’s Rendang. Often defined as a curry, this spicy beef dish is richer with a pastier consistency and combines a phenomenal blend of coconut milk with galangal, lemongrass, shallots, garlic, chilis, turmeric leaves and various other spices depending on the chef. Not to be missed if you’ve never tasted it, we savored their delicious version that featured fall off the bone brisket and a delicate sauce that was drier but more flavorful than Malaysian versions we’ve tasted.
Preferring Malaysian versions of Mee Gorang and Nasi Campur which we find much more complex, we scanned the menu and decided on Bebek Goreng, a Balinese version of deep-fried young duck that costs about one tenth what you’d pay for duck in a French restaurant and tastes fifty time better (sorry, Chef Ludo). Originally a ceremonial dish served at special occasions, it’s commonplace now although I’m guessing most locals can’t afford it very often despite the tourism based economy. Served with three versions of the ubiquitous condiment found all over Indonesia and Malaysia, sambal is a hot sauce made from chilis and some form of shrimp paste along with various other spices like garlic, ginger and fish sauce. Like the famously stinky durian, you either love it or hate it. Succulent and delicious, the duck’s $6 USD price tag simply can’t be beat anywhere in the entire eastern hemisphere and you’d be crazy to pass on this while visiting.
Curious about the Indonesian version, we also ordered Mee Goreng which is simply described on the menu as “fried noodles with plenty of extras”. Tasting as boring as it sounds, it’s one area the Southern Indians in Penang handily beat the Balinese Hindus. Order it only if you live under a rock and never had lo-fan (white person) style chow mein noodles. Offering a variety of desserts, the coconut pie was OK but Asia just can’t seem to match the decadent high calorie sweetness of a New York style cheesecake but the selections are better than Penang. Overall, I’d give it 4.5 out of 5 stars and say it’s a highly worthwhile choice.
The next day, we sojourned out to Bali’s beautiful cliff lined peninsula. Hoping to take in some picturesque beaches, Jimbaran and Uluwatu are where you’ll find expensive five-star resorts, some very scenic beaches and best of all, Bali’s best seafood. Arranging a driver for eight hours, the hotel’s price was 800,000 IDR (about $60 USD) and we decided to check out Suluban Beach for a few hours. Rivaling any great coastal cliff side beach in California or Australia, they’ve lined the approach to the trail with western style casual eateries. At the top of the trail, we stopped at Coco and Poke, a relatively new entry to the hip surfing town. Featuring healthy and delicious smoothie bowls, you can choose from pre-mixed ingredients or create your own. Finding a perfect lunch spot with a spectacular view on a comfortably cool early afternoon, we ordered one of the best lunches we’ve had since our last drive up the Northern California coast and enjoyed spectacular views before making our way down the steep trail. Reminding me of Acadia National Park in Maine, one of the most stunning parks in America, we arrived at a little cove with crashing waves that looked like a movie set and spent two hours on a beach so beautiful I had to close my eyes when I returned and surveyed the sludge known as Batu Ferrenghi.
Despite beautiful early afternoon sunshine, the weather changed quickly and a massive rain storm came rolling in before we could explore another beach. Like many tropical storms, it only lasted about a half hour and even though it didn’t clear into much of a sunset, the highlight of the day was our seafood dinner on the beach in Jimburan. We did go to the famous Uluwatu Temple but found busloads of obnoxious mainland Chinese tourists so we opted instead for a drink at Bali’s hippest spot for cocktails (The Rock Bar) until it was time for our seafood feast. Known for Bali’s best seafood/sunset experience, there’s a row of seafood restaurants all set up with tables on the beach. Not knowing one from the other, we turned to a great website page from TripCanvas describing 14 cool things to do in Uluwatu and Jimburan. Situated near the end of a street with about 10 consecutive narrow and long seafood joints, Made Bagus Cafe doled out one of the best seafood feasts we’ve ever had.
Offering patrons a chance to choose their own seafood or order from preset menus with many price ranges and a huge variety, they grill it on the spot and bring it to the beach. Sharing the evening with only a few other patrons and some of the most mellow beach dogs anywhere, the staff went out of their way to please and we customized our platter by adding more shrimp in place of red snapper. Deciding on lobster, crabs, tiger prawns, skewered squid with satay sauce and clams, the meal was an orgsamic taste sensation worth every penny. Paired with a giant-sized Bintang beer that came out cold (unheard of in Malaysia), the meal alone was worth the airfare and the overcast sky kept the blistering hot sun at bay anyway. If you have only one meal in Bali, this should be it. Unless you’re one of those crazy people who hate seafood. Or a vegetarian (even crazier).
Knowing our seafood feast wouldn’t easily be beat, the next day we asked the staff member that helped us arrange everything for a dinner recommendation. Here’s a little tip that may sound cynical or mean but it is usually true. Avoid asking staff members in developing nations for dinner recommendations (sans perhaps a concierge at a fancy resort). Sadly, even though Bali looks like a healthy economy where most tourism employees dress well, act professional and cater to your every whim, the bottom line is that they can’t afford to eat where tourists go. Pausing before responding when we asked for a Balinese style place close by, he suggested a nearby place called Sendok Emas Supposedly known for “international food”, I’m thinking he didn’t know about the nightly Thai style Ladyboy show they put on in the middle of everyone’s dinner.
While I don’t judge people’s personal choice for entertainment, shows featuring performers that identify with any letter in the now famous acronym LBGTQ isn’t our thing and thankfully we sat far enough away to avoid the leg spreading a few tables away. The food was average at best and the manager seemed insulted when we quickly asked for the check and wouldn’t stay for the encore. Whatever floats your boat.
Although not a restaurant, one attraction worth mentioning is a visit to a local coffee plantation to sample some Luwak Coffee. Famously known as cat-poop coffee and for being the world’s most expensive coffee, the price is due to the unusual method of production. Cat like animals known as civets ingest small beans that look like cherries and poop them out. Locals collect the dung, refine the beans and process it into coffee. Easily one of the best free coffee tasting sessions anywhere, Lumbung Sari House of Coffee offered a huge sampling of 15 different locally produced coffees that you’ve probably never tasted from mangosteen to lemongrass and even a disgusting durian flavored concoction that tasted like smelly socks.
Charging a fee if you wish to taste the Luwak coffee, it’s not as gross as it seems and we recommend trying this uniquely strange delicacy. Made with 100% caffeine, it carries a punch but tasted strangely sweet emanating an almost cocoa like flavor. Of course they lead you into a store where you can buy any one of the coffees and although we hardly ever buy tourist crap from overpriced shops, we couldn’t resist some lemongrass tea and ground Bali coffee. Of course, when we got home it didn’t taste anything like the samples. Lesson learned; Always listen to your better instincts.
Saving the best for last, we both love a good rack of bar-b-q baby back ribs and Bali is one of the best places in Asia to find them. Although we saw Tony Roma’s, why would anyone want chain food restaurant thousands of miles from home? Actually, plenty of closed-minded westerners want nothing more than a beach vacation that looks just like Florida or San Diego and now that we’ve seen Bali, we understand why so many Americans think it’s one of the best honeymoon spots besides Hawaii. (With due respect to Indonesia, it doesn’t even come close). There’s literally dozens of spots that advertise the island’s best bar-b-q ribs and honestly, we didn’t spend an immense amount of time researching one form the other. But we did find a place in Legian whose ribs were so lip smacking deliciously perfect, we both ordered the same thing. Simply perfect, if you come across Sang Ria Grill when searching for the perfect rib place, look no further. While the website claims they’re a grill and have something for everyone including meats, seafood, sandwiches, curries, all you really need to do is look at the picture below.
Spending all day getting back to Penang thanks to Malaysia’s ridiculously poor attention to detail for anything outside the nation’s capital, we didn’t need to leave until mid afternoon. Needing to eat lunch, we convinced the staff at Mozzarella Bar and Grill to let us eat a half hour before they opened. With two locations, the seaside location sits right next to Bali Niksoma Boutique Hotel and it’s rated quite well. For me, the menu looked better than lunch tasted. Having passed on the fish at our seafood dinner, I ordered a dish billed as Indonesian style grilled fish which is actually quite tasty at food courts in Penang but they brought out a tasteless broiled version with flavorless sambal so I can’t endorse them. But given the average breakfast at our hotel, I assume the real chefs don’t work 12 hour days which proves that Bali doesn’t act like other developing nations in Southeast Asia.
And before we knew it, our five days in Bali ended. Thinking I liked it better than Diane, she thought it was too westernized and thought the local tourism staff lacked a unique personal characteristic that defines their culture and country. Unlike our trips to Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand, you can spend a month in Bali and never really feel like you left Southern California except for the excessive garbage on the beaches. Returning back to Penang, it’s now time to count down the days and focus on moving to Chiang Mai. Having found a very reasonably priced moving company to ship our very limited boxes of stuff, we’re trying to line up appointments for our exploratory trip in early June and I’ll be writing a bit more about the visa, moving procedures and our quest to open a Thai bank account and sign a lease. For now, we head into the second round of The Stanley Cup Playoffs. Congratulations to the Edmonton Oilers for beating the San Jose Sharks and as the sole cheering section in all of Penang, we’ll yell loudly while our confusing our neighbors immensely. Cheers.