Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Beyond the Book: Ubud, Bali

Spanish Mackerel with Yellow Curry and Fern Tips at Batan Waru

 I had heard many great things about Ubud, the artistic heart of Bali.  And then I saw one thing that scared me: a very long trailer of Julia Roberts biking through unnaturally green terraced rice paddies as the lead character in Eat, Pray, Love.  A popular book plus a Julia Roberts movie could only spell the eminent demise of anything vaguely authentic about a place. I could only hope I made it in time, before the city was entirely consumed by tourists.

John had been raving about Ubud as he had visited on several occasions, pre-blockbuster movie.  We settled into a villa at Pertiwi Resort, a charming hotel in the heart of town.  Walking to dinner that first night, we batted off several children and a few sad looking women begging for handouts.  John insisted it had never been like that, in the years he had been coming to Ubud he had never seen beggars.  This was not a good sign. 

But as our days continued, there was little else about which to complain.  Aside from the hoards of day-trippers coming to scoop up bargain souvenirs at the labyrinthine central market and feed the residents of the Monkey Forest, there was much to love about this town.  To begin with, we were able to load up on good wine for the duration of our trip at an excellent little store appropriately called “Wine Shop”.  (It is visible as you drive North into Ubud on Jalan Pengosekan about 200 meters before the sharp left onto Monkey Forest Road.)  There we found a decent collection of Australian wines, some costly French Bordeaux, and the lowest prices on liquor in the city.

Slow Roasted Goat at Ary's Warung
The best surprises came at dinner where beyond the Aussie bars with Dave Matthews cover bands, we discovered there is sophisticated dining to be had.  Ary’s Warung is the sort of restaurant that sticks out like a pair of Manolo Blahnik strappy sandals in a closet full of flip flops- it is just too sophisticated looking for its surroundings.  Maybe that’s why no one was there except for two or three tables the occasions we dined at Ary’s.  Too bad for everyone else, because the food is mostly exceptional.  Slow roasted goat in Indian spices, steamed duck Balinese style, beef cheeks Rendang- these are the sort of dishes that would cost a fortune at a trendy restaurant in the West, but here, no entrée was more than $15.

Noodles with Five Spice Chicken at Lamak
Another favorite, and equally empty restaurant: Lamak on Monkey Forest Road.  You can hardly tell Lamak exists from the street, but inside the room opens up to reveal two floors of spacious, comfortable tables with open walls looking out onto the surrounding foliage.  The female chef is doing refined versions of Indonesian food like Mie Goreng with five-spice chicken at lunch and a dinner menu that spans the globe for inspiration.  Our best dishes included a smoked tea infused duck broth with duck tortellini and a coconut laced opaka ceviche to start, and a plate of butterfish medallions surrounded by a riot of flavors from crispy lentil patties to sweet tomato chutney. 

Pepes Ikan, Fish in Banana Leaf, at Batan Waru
For more everyday eating we frequented the busy Kafe Batan Waru.  Indonesian and Balinese classics are clearly crowd pleasers and they do them well.  Extra sambal is necessary as they dumb down the spice a bit, no doubt to suit most Western palettes. But on request, the staff kindly brings out a plate of sambals with three levels of hotness from which to choose.  Some of my favorite dishes here were specials, like the Spanish Mackerel in Yellow Curry Sauce with fern tips.  A bit much for lunch but somehow I found room. 

Oh yes, and for the art lovers there’s plenty of that in the galleries scattered around town.  For traditional dance and music there is at least one show a night going on somewhere.  And for those who are chasing a more holistic than hedonist experience, there are more than enough organic cafes and yoga clothing stores for that set too.  For people who like to straddle the worlds of indulgent eating and healthy living like my boyfriend and I, there’s daily yoga classes at Taksu Spa open to all levels and even a decent gym, Ubud Fitness Club, where for $5 you can cram in some reps before heading back to Batan Waru for a lunch of fish steamed in banana leaf and a watermelon juice. 

There may now be occasional beggars, and I’m sure that many yoga shops did not exist five years ago, but Ubud is a surprisingly charming place with a level of sophistication mixed with tradition that should appeal to many kinds of people.  It certainly appealed to us- we liked it so much the first time we came back again a week later. 

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

1 comment:

  1. Loved the food in Ubud. My favorite place had to be Clear Cafe, such amazing vegetarian food and fresh juices. I'm not a vegetarian, but found the food to be incredible.