Discussions about volcanic activity aside, the most common refrain you'll hear about Bali these days is how much it's changed. And no, it won't be a reference to the island's evolution from a sleepy backwater first "discovered" by surfers 40 years ago to a modern-day holiday mecca geared towards the sybaritic pursuits of the 20 million passengers pouring through Denpasar's Ngurah Rai International Airport each year.
Well, partly. But it's more than that. These days even those faithful Australian pilgrims who return like migrating birds each year are bedazzled at the speed of construction that adds bold new landmarks seemingly overnight in a never-ending game of Tetris.
Surprisingly for a place that spawned the unflattering sobriquet "Bali belly", the island's restaurant scene has outpaced the frantic building of resorts, day spas and infinity pools. A clique of international chefs highly regarded in Australia and abroad has set up shop on Bali – and it's their food that has guided the island over the past few years from its party-focused adolescence into full adulthood.
"Bali has moved beyond a beach destination to become a lifestyle destination," says chef Will Meyrick, one of the island's early adopters who opened his first restaurant, the sumptuous Asian fine diner Sarong, in 2008 and added the pumping pan-Asian Mama San three years later. "The attitude of the tourists we see coming here is less that food is an afterthought and more that it's a real driver of their destination."
The take-home message? Bali has shucked off its cliche as the natural habitat of the sunburnt bogan to cement itself as a gourmet getaway. Seminyak is well and truly wrestling the nickname of "North Brighton" off Noosa. Further along the coast, once sleepy Canggu is hotness personified thanks in no small part to specialty cafes and the low-fi luxe of The Slow hotel.
Meyrick has recently tripled down on the Seminyak area, opening Som Chai on its northern edge in September. An opulent, moody den with a menu giving his spin on the multi-layered flavours of Thailand, it also boasts the essential items of a professionally executed cocktail list and live DJs. "People are dining out for the experience rather than just the food now and we have to adapt and move accordingly," he says. "Really the only constant here in Bali has been the evolution of what people want and expect."
As a serious culinary destination, Bali belly these days is more likely to mean the added girth after a week or two where the living is easy and the food is very good indeed. Look no further than Da Maria, the first Bali outpost from Sydney's Maurice Terzini (Icebergs, North Bondi Italian) ahead of a planned Icebergs beach club and hotel in Canggu. His smart new Petitenget venue borrows design tics the Amalfi Coast (including some very chi-chi indoor fountains) and boasts a kitchen pumping out produce-driven Italian perfection such as charry-based pizze, wood-grilled seafood and a chicken cotoletta to win over the most critical nonna.
Mrs Sippy in Seminyak is another DJ-soundtracked extravaganza busy upping the design ante. Best described as a hotel pool bar without the hotel, this sibling to the Double Bay venue of the same name focuses its energies on a curving 1000-square-metre saltwater pool. Sounds like a gimmick? Well, it could be – especially with a diving tower that entertains the crowds drinking cocktails on sun loungers as they watch the brave and foolhardy leap off – but the food rises to the occasion thanks to a five-metre wood grill and pizza oven stoking the Mediterranean flame with herb and garlic split king prawns and new school burgers, as well as keeping their swimsuit body-conscious crowd happy with quinoa salads.
So much for casual. Super-smart newcomer Bikini is the canary in the Bali restaurant mineshaft, testing its appetite for experimental fine dining, albeit one with a sense of fun. With other venues Sisterfields, Expat. Roasters and BO$$ Man Burgers, you'd imagine Australian owner Adam McCasey has expertise in the area. Nonetheless, it may be a surprise to the Bali neophyte to find pastry-wrapped foie gras and quince cigars complete with "bread and butter" ash for dipping, or crackers that are the essence of oyster captured in crunch form, or venison tartare with a flutter of ginger and chilli.
There's fashion of a different kind of in evidence at five-star resort Alila Seminyak. The recent rebranding of its primo beachfront restaurant as Seasalt has marked its focus on locally caught seafood, highlighted by the theatrical opening act of a sand and shell-covered centrepiece (smash it with a wooden hammer to reveal – voila! – the nori-wrapped smoked mackerel butter for your bread). It's clever cooking. The signature snapper cooked in a salt crust needs nothing but a squeeze of lemon, while other dishes such as lightly cured bonito with dashi mayonnaise and wasabi show a welcome Japanese influence.
Just a little along Petitenget you'll find a familiar name in MoVida, providing the in-house restaurant at the luxury Katamama boutique hotel. It's here that the economies of scale for the food-minded traveller become apparent. The menu is full of the greatest hits that make MoVida in Melbourne one of the world's great tapas bars – the anchovy with smoked tomato sorbet; the bresaola with truffled egg – but it's all at a serious discount from Melbourne prices.
The same could be said of Saigon Street, where Geoff Lindsay has transplanted his brand of Vietnamese street eats to a neon-lit, luridly coloured shopfront where the menu features things such as bo la lot – charry betel-leaf wrapped wagyu mince parcels with the same "Mrs T's magical sauce" that you'll find in his Melbourne mod-Vietnamese restaurant, Dandelion.
Sick of Seminyak's traffic snarls? The pace of life is certainly slower in Ubud, a place where five minutes on an anaemic rental motorbike will take you from the traffic-clogged inner town to paddyfields of luscious green. But the food scene is no less thriving.
Local expats call it the Eat, Pray, Love effect with a palpable measure of dismay. Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir of self-actualisation brought huge changes to Ubud, although it's safe to assume plenty of those expats may have been lured here themselves by the promise of sex and spiritual redemption. In any case, journalists, IT workers and consultants of all stripes are the digital diaspora who flock to internationally renowned pastry chef Will Goldfarb's Room4Dessert. A sophisticated late-night dessert bar and supper club, it wouldn't be out of place in New York City – which makes sense, as Goldfarb is a native New Yorker who came to Bali seeking a more laidback way of life.
"The digital nomad boom has been good for business. Those people have more time, they need to network and don't have an office," says Goldfarb. "But there's also been a real spike in domestic tourism. There's a new middle class in Indonesia – for the first time they're outnumbering international tourists – and they're sophisticated, and they want to come to Bali for a weekend. It works very well for us."
Any self-respecting gourmet escape must pay heed to local cuisine – so where does Balinese food fit into all this? Australian expat Janet De Neefe is the go-to expert on the subject, having opened one of Ubud's leading restaurants, the pioneering Casa Luna, in 1987.
"Right from the start I had Balinese dishes but back then people were more cautious, it was all jaffles and smoothies on tourist menus. But I liked playing around with local ingredients – when I made pesto, for example, I used local basil which I found much more interesting."
As well as running Casa Luna, Bar Luna and restaurant Indus, De Neefe has found time to operate two guesthouses as well as found the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival and the Ubud Food Festival. Now in their 14th and fourth year, respectively, both events have enough heft to justify a Bali trip. In fact, so central is food to the Bali brief that even the Writers Festival has a dedicated kitchen program with a firm focus on the food of Bali and Indonesia.
"A lot of travellers here might not even eat a Balinese meal," says De Neefe. "There are local chefs doing great things but unfortunately they get ignored. But hopefully people are starting to become more interested in local cuisine when they travel. And as far as Indonesian food is concerned, there's a whole archipelago out there just waiting to be explored."
As well as occupying a prime beachfront position, the lush five-star Alila Seminyak Bali also has three infinity pools and beach bar perfect for watching the sun go down over the Indian Ocean. Rooms start from $429 a night. See alilahotels.com/seminyak
Featuring cooking demonstrations, talks, international and local guest chefs and plenty of eating, the 2018 Ubud Food Festival will be held from April 13 to 15; ubudfoodfestival.com
It's not a real holiday without a great coffee fix. Get your caffeine fix here at five of Bali's best.
EXPAT. ROASTERS, SEMINYAK
A specialty roaster and brew bar. Go espresso or pour-over with your Indo-sourced beans.
BAR LUNA, UBUD
Great Italian-style espresso with a full-bodied blend of local beans makes a compelling cross-cultural mix.
HUNGRY BIRD, CANGGU
A third-wave micro-roaster with a focus on Indonesian beans and single-origin brews.
It's hard to find. It's cool. And in a measure of the esteem in which they're held, Revolver's beans are now used across the island.
BOOTSTRAP LAB, CANGGU
Well, it makes sense to drink it cold in the tropics. Bootstrap's small-batch organic cold brew coffee is now sold across Bali but you can get it at the source at their Canggu HQ.
Larissa Dubecki travelled as a guest of the Ubud Food Festival and Alila Hotels.