Bali's new wave chefs

Peter Wilmoth went to Bali to check out the Australian effect on the island's restaurants and bars, and found our chefs behind many of the best spots. Here's his guide to where to eat and drink in the paradise.

What are the odds? You go to Bali to discover how Australians are transforming the island with their fine food, energetic hospitality and hip bars, and you're match-fit for the big nosh-up when you're felled by the band of pain across the top of the stomach known to generations of Australians as Bali belly.

This is what Alanis Morissette would call ironic but the rest of us call unfortunate coincidence. Anyway, you know it when it comes. You find yourself engaged in urgent perusal of the menus of restaurants where you have no intention of dining. Luckily, in 24 visits here since 1988 it's only the second time this little charmer has touched my life, and it's not going to slow me down in checking out how a band of Aussie chefs and entrepreneurs are doing their bit to confirm Bali's growing reputation as a food destination.

Among the charms of Bali when I first came here were two major omissions that mattered - coffee (never liked muddy Bali variety) and wine (always exorbitant) - and one that didn't: fine food. Like everyone else I was there for gado gado, banana smoothies, maybe a Bintang beer, and the waves.

Now, 25 years later, there's good coffee everywhere, and we even found a creditable bottle of rose for $20 at a popular local place called Trattoria (Jl Oberoi, +361 737082, trattoriaasia.com).

We've come to Bali to see what Australians have brought to the hospitality business here, and our first stop is the hot new diner and hang-out joint Motel Mexicola, a technicolour riot in the heart of the cool Seminyak area.

We're just in time to have tequila poured down our throats by the Australian co-owner, Adrian Reed, who jumps around the courtyard asking customers to open their mouths as he comes past brandishing the bottle.

It's bordering on audience participation and the crowd love it. After two weeks in Bali having done the daily dodge of touts offering Viagra on Jelan Oberoi, it comes as a refreshing change to be offered something you actually want - a heart-starting tequila shot - without fussing with a glass, and all free.

With its candle-dripped shrines, crucifixes regaled with rosaries, eye-catching icons and hilariously kitsch soundtrack (Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass always sound better with tequila), the place brings a slice of Mexico to Bali. Reed, who co-owns the Mexican Rojo Rocket in Avoca, NSW, is an energetic part of the Australian invasion of the island's restaurants and bars.

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The best free entertainment in town is taking a seat at Mexicola's bar, ordering a frozen margarita (in a salt-rimmed plastic cup) and watching the crowd.

Next stop is Mama San (135 Jl Raya Kerobokan , +361 730436, mamasanbali.com). With its red lamps, leather club lounges and ottomans, Mama San is more genteel. The only icon here is Sydney chef Will Meyrick, who in 2007 opened the famous Sarong, the sultry salon with chandeliers and ornate curtains, and in 2011 launched its cheekier little sister.

We find a corner seat upstairs near the pots of elephant grass in Mama San's bar area and marvel at Meyrick's food and the eclectic photographs on the walls.

With its moody elegance and superb food, the place is full every night and no one serious about food or fun should miss it. It's Asian street food in a remarkable setting.

Halfway through the snapper, I was about to announce to my partner this was shaping as the best night out of our three trips to Bali together - but I was speechless because I had eaten a whole chilli by mistake and found myself writhing among the scatter cushions pushing yoghurt and hunks of ice into my mouth. Beware.

Sarong is a different evening. With its lush curtains and ornate chandeliers it's Bali's high-end bling, and you'd better be wearing your designer thongs at least. It almost demands you have an occasion to celebrate.

Next day, dodging the open drains - is that how I got Bali belly? - we made our way to the legendary Ku De Ta, where chef Ben Cross from Byron Bay has cooked for five years, and settle on the grass with our $15 cocktails to look at the surf of Seminyak.

Opened 12 years ago by Melbourne-born Arthur Chondros, the kitchen is co-managed by Cross so the Australian connection is undeniable and therefore, like Neil Finn and Phar Lap, we're claiming Ku De Ta as our own.

Hating paying $15 for a cocktail but loving the chance to be horizontal on a lawn at the beach listening to the chill-out soundtrack, we accept Ku De Ta retains its crown as south-east Asia's best Australian bar.

Cross took some time to show us around the upstairs kitchen, which he says is called "mejekawi" meaning sacred table. Ku De Ta offers diners a seven-course or 11-course degustation menu with wine pairings, all matched with that remarkable view of the ocean.

Cross says the standard of eating in Bali has improved enormously. "Anywhere else in the world that's a tourist destination, the food's rubbish. In Bali it's always been quite good - Japanese, Italian, Indonesian. Now there's a new level coming through."

At Potato Head, a little way down the road, there is another chilled-out beach experience, with a heavy nod to retro evidenced by the Ernest Hemingway novels and Le Specs on sale in the gift shop.

The only Australian connection we noticed at Potato Head was the young woman in charge of the long queue to get in. This is a first for me: a half-hour wait to enter a bar the size of a small football oval. But there are some blue-chip people-watching opportunities, and it's not like we're in a hurry.

Next day we went to what's sometimes called the "Paris end of Seminyak" and stopped in at Petitenget, a French-inspired restaurant opened in 2011 by Melburnian Sean Cosgrove, former owner of the street fashion label Mooks. With its French bistro feel, Cosgrove has brought his undeniable style to this restaurant named after the area. "Petitenget has quickly become an island institution," he says, "having been built around the expat community and the regular Bali visitors."

We join the morning coffee crew working their iPads in the courtyard, just slightly pretending to be expats. Australian chef Simon Blaby says hello. "Australia has no discernible cuisine so you can't sum it up in a sentence," he says of the work Australian chefs are doing in Bali. "That's its strength and its weakness. We're not tied down by anybody's roots."

The next night we travel to Jimbaran Bay to experience one of the island's new star spots, Sundara, located in the Four Seasons Hotel amid flaming torches and with the sound of waves lapping gently on the beach. It's a world away from the craziness and potholes of Seminyak, and well worth the 30-minute drive.

Chef Greg Bunt, 42, who grew up in country NSW, established six restaurants in Brisbane over seven years, which were destroyed in the 2011 floods. "A lot of hot young chefs are coming here now, particularly in the past five years," he says. Why do they come?

"It's nice to be in a summery environment. It's nice to be in an environment where people are travelling and happy."

Back in Seminyak, in the middle of "Eat Street", is Ginger Moon (Jl Oberoi/7 Laksmana, +361 734533, gingermoonbali.com). It serves modern Asian food a step away from the madness of endless streams of cars and motorbikes, sometimes including a family of five with a baby and a chicken!

Australian chef Dean Keddell explains the challenges. "Bali in some instances is a million miles away from home," he says. "Consistent and varied produce is difficult to find. A reliance on imported items by restaurants and hotels and the local government rulings are at odds with each other - this can make things very difficult and in some cases very expensive.

"There are no apprenticeships in Bali for cooks, so the only real way to have good staff is to train them yourself, which is a very slow but rewarding process."

And the rewards have never been better for the gastro-traveller. "Why this sudden proliferation of Australian operators in Bali?" asks George Muskens, who is making a television series about the best restaurants in various countries for the Australia Network. "Maybe the annual intake of nearly 10 million hungry and thirsty tourists landing on the island might help explain the attraction."

And the surf.

"I'm a surfer, so I'm always out in the waves," Greg Bunt says. "That's a big draw for me."

And Ben Cross at Ku De Ta on the attractions of cooking in Bali? "It's the endless summer, for starters," he says.

After all this fine dining we were now looking for simple local food, which we found at a cafe in Uluwatu, about a 90-minute drive from Seminyak. The only Australian connection we found was Mark Richards, the four-time world surfing champion from Newcastle, here to compete in a veterans' event at this world-famous surfing mecca.

Uluwatu is something to behold, especially if you enjoy watching the world's greatest surfers in action.

I ordered a tuna salad, which was almost inedible. I say almost, because watching surfing in the sunshine makes you hungry, and it was a long ride home.

It was our worst meal but our best day. And all those other meals more than made up for it.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Peter Wilmoth fell in love with travelling when, age 21, he first saw the Eiffel Tower and laughed out loud because of its sheer familiarity. He has since discovered many other heart-stopping sights around the world.

GETTING THERE

Jetstar flies to Denpasar, Bali, from Sydney and Melbourne five times a week, starting at $399 economy one way.

STAYING THERE

The W Resort and Spa, Jl Petitenget, Seminyak. +361 4 738 106, wretreatbali.com. It's expensive but it's worth saving up and splashing some cash for a couple of nights here — it's stylish and cool with a great pool.

The Royal Beach Seminyak Bali, Jl Camplung Tanduk, Seminyak. +361 4 730 730, accorhotels.com. Excellently located; choose a villa on the beach, or a room, and enjoy the view of the ocean from the pool.

GETTING AROUND

If you don't want to hire a motorbike or a car, taxis are cheap and the best way to get around. Make sure you pick a taxi driver happy to use the meter. For day trips to Ubud or the Bukit Peninsula (Uluwatu, Padang Padang), hire a driver for the day. Costs about $40, but this is negotiable.

TRIP NOTES

More information: indonesia.travel/en

FIVE BEST BALI BARS

Ku De Ta

9 Jl Laksmana, +62 361 736 969, kudeta.net.

Hot place to watch the sunset, preferably while half-lying on the lawn.

Potato Head

51 Jl Petitenget, Seminyak, +62 361 479 7373.

Lounge on the day beds at this retro beach club. ptthead.com.

Motel Mexicola

9 Jl Kayu Jati, Petitenget, +62 361 736 688, motelmexicolabali.com.

Cool Latin design meets quirky retro tunes.

Woo Bar at the W Retreat and Spa Bali

Jl Petitenget, +62 361 473 8106,

wretreatbali.com.

Stylish outdoor lounge area overlooking the ocean.

Rock Bar at Ayana Resort and Spa

Jimabaran, +62 361 702 222,

ayanaresort.com/rockbarbali.

This famous spectacularly located bar features "grass-roots Australian" acts.

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