It’s Saturday night in Seminyak and the tribes of visitors to Bali are facing the biggest decision of the day: which of the many brilliant restaurants to eat in.
At Movida Bali, Frank Camorra’s newest version of his growing Spanish restaurant empire, diners are settling into their tiger prawns cooked in cider and Lombok soft-shell crab while George Benson’s Give Me the Night plays on the turntable.
It’s moody, it’s elegant, it’s a slice of Melbourne on the beach (behind Potato Head Beach Club and part of a new hotel called Katamama). And, as a key element in Bali’s gastronomic transformation, it’s so hot right now.
Next night the crowd in Geoff Lindsay’s year-old Saigon Street, an eatery putting a new spin on traditional Vietnamese dishes, is rocking to the tunes from the ’70s over crab dressed with coconut, chilli and lime and san choi bao of wok-fried squid.
On one of Seminyak’s busiest streets, the food is amazing and the vibe is electric – barmen shaking cocktails, waitstaff bringing shared plates of coconut roast lobster roll with rambutan and Thai basil, and Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet pumping out.
Thing is, unless you’ve recently been to Bali and checked out the island’s thriving food scene then BTO were right: you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
Bali was once all about sand, surf, motorbikes and massages. Eating was a nasi goreng, a toastie and maybe a smoothie.
Now, though, the island is a white-hot food destination, and it’s Australians who are creating the new normal, opening an eclectic range of show-stopping favourites across Seminyak and Petitenget and nearby Canggu and inland in the hilltop town of Ubud.
“Within Seminyak there’s an amazing food scene that is only growing,” Frank says. “Bali’s not just a place where people go and have a holiday. Any holiday for me is all about eating. When people go away they want to be able to access really amazing food.”
“They’ve made a huge difference,” says Bali food pioneer Janet DeNeefe of the Australian chefs and restaurateurs.
“Australians have always had that rapport with Balinese, our temperament is a bit similar. Serious joke lovers. It’s very exciting to work in a place like that, it’s a highly charged creative atmosphere.”
Our cover story was shot on location at the luxurious Alila Seminyak Bali.
Thirty years ago possibly the most exotic food for westerners in Bali was found at local Kuta legend Made’s – rijsttafel, a culinary throwback from Indonesia’s former life as a Dutch colony. You could not find a decent coffee, let alone a glass of wine.
Now, southern Bali is an eating mecca with a brilliant array of food for all moods, from fine dining (Sarong, run by pioneering ex-Sydneysider Will Meyrick), the French-flavoured Petitenget (run by Melburnian Sean Cosgrove), Movida Bali, Saigon Street (Geoff Lindsay of Pearl and Dandelion fame bringing his love of Vietnamese food to the island) and casual tapas-style dining and seven-nights-a-week party time at the riotous Motel Mexicola (run by Sydneysider Adrian Reed).
And of course there’s Casa Luna, the breezy favourite of Ubud, opened in 1992 by ex-Melburnian Janet DeNeefe, who has watched the food scene in Ubud and Seminyak as it transformed.
“Once upon a time you’d go to Bali and you’d get Bali belly, which meant you got really sick,” Janet says. “Now you get Bali belly because you’ve put on about six kilos from eating too much.”
Janet credits the French-American Chris Salans from the Ubud restaurant Mozaic as one of the pioneers in taking Balinese food into a fine-dining environment and introducing westerners to exotic Balinese food. “Suddenly it was white tablecloths, table service and you’re eating jackfruit.”
Janet has overseen remarkable change since settling in Bali in 1984. She remembers her early trips to Bali even further back, in the 1970s.
“We ate a mild version of gado gado but it was like, ‘Oh my God what is this?’,” she says. “It was that concept of peanut butter with salad – whoever thought of that? So suddenly your concept of food was immediately challenged. In Australia it was still very much meat and three veg.”
In 1987 she opened her first restaurant, Lilies, in Ubud, experimenting with Balinese dishes with a slight fusion element. “Back then nobody was that interested in Balinese food,” she says. “What the Australians brought to Bali was jaffles and smoothies.”
Eighteen years later the game changed, when Will Meyrick opened Sarong in Seminyak in 2005. Sarong was – and is – a revelation, an ornate, sumptuous and evocative fine diner that’s usually booked out for weeks.
In 2013 Will followed up this success with the more casual Mama San, where a packed house each night relaxes on chesterfield lounges and ottomans under ornate chandeliers and enjoys the restaurant’s raffish air.
Says Frank Camorra: “Will Meyrick really pretty much broke the ground in Bali for the amazing-quality casual-service-style of eating.”
It’s not just the food that is taken seriously but also the aesthetic. “When you go to restaurants in Bali – or anywhere in Indonesia, really – there’s a quality to the fit-out which is pretty hard to obtain here [in Australia], the attention to detail,” Frank says.
“I guess it’s the economics. For Movida we gave [the hotel owners] a bit of a scheme and a style of what Movida is about – big long bar and those elements – but they really nailed it with the aesthetic they wanted to create.”
So why have the Australians remade the food experience in Bali? “We do hospitality incredibly well,” Frank says.
“There’s a growing Indonesian middle-class and Australia has had years of being able to create a dining scene that works really well. We do the good-quality, professional service but in a more relaxed way of eating and that really suits being on holidays.”
Janet is excited about the growing food scene. “It’s great that people are coming to Bali to eat,” she says.
“It’s got some of the world’s best food. There are so many great options. The Mexican food in Ubud is better than I’ve ever had in Melbourne. Taco Casa has, I swear, the best Mexican food I’ve ever had.” She also mentions Ibu Oka, a place “famous in Ubud for slow-roasted suckling pigs, and it’s drop-dead, to die for.”
Janet’s own Casa Luna, she says, is “an eclectic menu of everything I love to eat … it’s Balinese food, but also salads, vegan dishes, tempeh, bread, cakes. Everything I do is about the home, Casa – it’s a home. It’s very casual, very comfortable, cosy and very Balinese.”
Melburnian Geoff Lindsay, who made his name at Stephanie’s, Blakes and Stella before opening Pearl in Richmond in 2000 (he sold it in 2010) and Vietnamese diner Dandelion in Elwood in 2011, is consulting chef for one of Seminyak’s newest hot spots, Saigon Street.
The “bustling, boisterous temple devoted to the street food of Vietnam” celebrated its first birthday in June. Geoff, with his wife Jane, had been coming to Bali for years and wanted to spend more time there. His presence adds significant credibility to the Seminyak scene.
“Seminyak is seriously one of the best dining precincts in the world,” he says. “For the size and population, it’s incredible. It’s busy every night and madness in the high seasons. Great food, drinks and some over-the-top fit-outs.”
Last month Geoff opened Salumeria, a deli-restaurant/gourmet grocer/Campari bar in nearby Canggu. I ask him why so many Australians chefs/restaurateurs have come to Bali in recent years.
“Australia has always been a go-to place for restaurateurs looking for creative and flexible chefs,” he says. “If you go to London, Paris or New York you see Aussie chefs everywhere. Bali is no different.08
“The increase in Australian operators in Bali obviously has a lot to do with the lack of restriction and compliance that can frustrate or compromise businesses in Australia. The low labour costs certainly helps businesses like restaurants, which are notoriously labour-intensive.”
Melburnian Sean Cosgrove, former owner of the Mooks clothing range, opened Petitenget in 2012, a stylish French-style bistro named after the hip area in which it’s located.
In its famed corner location in Seminyak, just a couple of minutes from the beach and around the corner from the legendary La Lucciola, Petitenget has the vibe of a shady French bistro with an outdoor terrace – Gallic style at a Bali pace.
Tonight raw Atlantic salmon is starting on the menu but as an all-day diner, travellers drop in for long morning coffee sessions with the papers or Bloody Marys in the afternoon while watching the crowds head to the beach or on to the madness of the packed Seminyak shopping strips.
Sean also has Old Man’s, a cool “surf club meets beach bar”, right on Batu Bolong beach in Canggu. It’s a big hit with an increasingly large surf-loving and international backpacker crowd who want a quieter, slightly more chilled-out environment than Seminyak.
“The market out there is way beyond anything we ever imagined,” Sean says.
Seminyak’s growth has been huge in the past decade as visitors increasingly spurn the chaos of Kuta for its more sophisticated neighbour. Once the much quieter outlying neighbour of Legian, Seminyak (and the adjoining Petitenget) are now restaurant and cafe hubs.
“Not like when I arrived and Petitenget was just an outpost,” Sean says. “The push is definitely to Canggu [a half hour’s drive from Seminyak] and further north.”
And the Aussie invasion continues. Former Melburnian, now Sydneysider, Maurice Terzini in 1988 launched a revolution in cafe styles with Chapel Street’s Caffe e Cucina before moving to Sydney to open the iconic Icebergs.
Later this year Maurice will open a casual Italian restaurant called Da Maria in Petitenget.
It’s good news for everyone, from visitors to restaurateurs. “When you have a movement of success in that industry, everybody benefits,” Janet says.
- Read more about our Aussie brigade’s restaurants in the new Bali food guide
- Flavours Of Bali, editor-in-chief Jonette George
- $80 (Smudge Publishing)