In Food + Drink

Bali Reinvented: Exploring Asia’s New Gourmet Mecca

Sleek, refined, and effortlessly cool. These are not terms historically associated with Bali. However, in an effort to fend off competition from new rivals all claiming to be ‘like Bali used to be’, the real Bali has quietly stepped up its game in recent years – and it’s challenging everything we thought we knew about this ‘land of the gods’.

From its days as a sleepy 80s surfing mecca to the excesses of the 1990s and early 2000s, Bali has constantly evolved to keep up with changing consumer tastes. Its latest evolution is a move away from the ‘party island’ reputation of old in favour of a more mature, well-rounded experience – and this is nowhere more apparent than its gourmet scene.

Australian chef and restauranteur Will Meyrick – the mastermind behind for some of Bali’s hottest dining venues including the brand new Thai-inspired SomChaiMama SanTiger Palm  and Hujan Locale – says Bali’s gourmet scene has undergone huge changes since his first venue opened in 2004.

Mama San’s wine cellar Photo: Supplied

Though cold Bintang and a nasi goreng were once enough to satisfy diners, Meyrick says modern travellers are now much more demanding, craving new experiences not just a return to old favourites. Demographics have changed dramatically in recent years too.

“Throughout the 1990s, ‘areas’ were created that each had their own character; you’d go here for this and there for that,” Meyrick recalls. “It was quite fluid but with distinct boundaries. After the first bomb happened [in 2002,] people had to try harder to make money, and the areas shifted. Kuta and Legian were displaced by Seminyak and Canggu.”

“Not long after the first bomb, Russian tourism kept some of the hotels alive, then the influx of Koreans who enjoyed the shopping, followed by Indian tourists who love the weather and ability to host big weddings, and then the Chinese. They all need to eat and they all like to find cuisine that suits them. The Javanese, Japanese and Europeans kept coming back, and eventually so did the Australians. Each group now has its own preferred dining scene.”

Tiger Palm Photo: Supplied

Recent uncertainty around the volcano, Gunung Agung, has led to the emergence of newer areas to attract visitors, particularly around Canggu and Pererenan on the south coast, as well as Ubud in the uplands. These areas have expanded to cater to surfers, hipsters, yogis and digital nomads, but it’s not easy, as these groups fluctuate and dissipate rapidly.

“It’s become usual to see restaurants come and go with increasing hype and decreasing returns, taking with them the dreams of having that perfect life, a restaurant on a tropical island.”

“Some entrepreneurs have really nailed it though, showing their ability to read the market and move with the times, and really understand what it takes to create a great concept in this ever-changing tropical market.”

Meyrick says Bali is tough for the small owner-operator, as bigger corporate operators come in with deep pockets and strong media-savvy statements. As a response, and likely out of necessity, areas such as Canggu and Ubud have now created their own unique vibe.

“Here you can find smaller 30 to 40-seater restaurants, some doing specialised foods, others into fusion and boutique cuisine, and a lot promoting healthy or vegetarian menus.”

Will Meyrick Photo: Supplied

Though not one to partake in novelty dining trends and ‘celebrity ingredients’, which tend to come and go with the changing of the season, Meyrick says one trend he and many other local restaurants have fully embraced is in the venue interiors themselves. It’s a movement breathing new life into the scene, creating a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach.

Meyrick’s restaurant Mama San, for example, is like stepping back into colonial Shanghai in the 1920s with marble-topped mah-jong tables, over-sized leather chesterfields, old-style photographs, and the feeling of an underground jazz club as the night kicks into gear.

Other venues which have taken this interior design concept and run with it include Aya, a Peruvian–Asian fusion restaurant and art gallery in Seminyak; and Da Maria, a 1960s-esque Italian restaurant with cool blue and white palette and geometric styling.

It’s not a case of style to mask substance either, with the interiors building upon the local dining scene’s reputation for good food at great prices, a hallmark of Bali for decades.

Canggu Cooking Retreat Photo: Supplied

“For me, the style and design of venues is very exciting,” Meyrick says. “I love the way interiors can impact on guests’ impressions of their experience, and in the tropics, we have such a luxury of design innovations.”

Highlighting the flavours and diversity of the region is something close to Meyrick’s heart. He recently launched the Canggu Cooking Retreat, an urban farmhouse, homestay and cooking school aimed at showcasing the food and flavours of Indonesia, not just Bali.

“For any chef we spend a lot of time in the kitchen, and for me kitchens are homes. When you visit a family home you are often in the kitchen, my family and I we hang out a lot in our kitchen and I wanted to bring that concept into a residential retreat that put guests in the kitchen, let them access the gardens and see the animals.”

“I’m hugely and constantly awed by the culture of Indonesia, not just Bali. It has been a long-term dream of mine to create the ultimate experience of a cooking school that shares all around it the rural culture from where the cooking comes.”

Bali is a destination many Australians have been to time and again, and as its newest evolution continues, now is the perfect time to revisit and rediscover it all over again.

Published 25 July, 2018