From Balinese Babi guling to Toum on za’atar fries in Sonoma, here’s what our dining editor has been enjoying lately.
Eating in Bali isn’t so far from home
Standing in the middle of a rice paddy outside of Ubud, Bali, Chef Putu Ambara of Nusantara restaurant pulls a yellow button flower from the verdant overgrowth. “Taste it; it makes your tongue numb,” he says. A tiny nibble from the plant, also known as Szechuan buttons, instantly creates a tingling sensation that lasts for several minutes. It’s just one of the many, many edible herbs and flowers that have been used in Indonesia as both tonic and flavoring for thousands of years.
Bali is an edible wonderland and a forager’s dream, filled with edible greenery, seafood, fruits, vegetables, meat and native wildlife like no other place on earth, and I came to taste it all.
More than 8,300 miles from San Francisco, Bali is part of the Indonesian archipelago that straddles the Indian and Pacific oceans. More like its Southeast Asian neighbors than Pacific Islanders, Bali is an island jungle just 8 degrees south of the equator. The town of Ubud is a cultural center of dance, art and food that rose to fame as a destination in Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2006 travel memoir “Eat, Pray, Love.”
On a seven-day whirlwind trip this month, I ate at as many restaurants, warungs (the Balinese name for casual cafes), high-end spots and food markets as I could. My takeaway is how similar the culinary philosophies of Sonoma County and Bali are — making use of organic, local ingredients; eliminating food waste whenever possible; foraging for unique flavors; “nose-to-tail” eating that uses every part of the animal and plant; and honoring culinary traditions while adding new twists.
And while a week is barely time to scratch the surface of the fascinating food culture of just one small corner of Bali, here are a few favorite restaurants in and around Ubud, Bali, should you get the chance to go.
Locavore: Named the best restaurant in Indonesia and one of the 50 best restaurants in Asia multiple times, this sustainability-focused fine dining spot is as much a philosophy as a meal. Chefs Eelke Plasmeijer (a Dutchman who moved to Indonesia in 2008) and Ray Adriansyah set playful culinary scenes with unexpected ingredients like overripe bananas, nutmeg tree fruit and bok choy stems to demonstrate how food “waste” can be turned into Michelin-worthy dishes. It’s best to experience the nine-course menu with a sense of wonder and intrigue rather than expecting a traditional meal. And don’t flinch when raw goat meat is served in a leaf. It’s delicious. Jl. Dewisita No. 10, Ubud, Kecamatan Ubud, Kabupaten Gianyar, Bali 80571, Indonesia, locavore.co.id
Nusantara: This sister restaurant to Locavore focuses more on traditional home cooking inspired by local ingredients. Chef Putu’s Saturday cooking class includes a traditional food market tour, breakfast at a street-side warung for roast pig (Babi guling), a foraging tour through a local rice patty and a restaurant kitchen cooking class using local herbs, spices and meats prepared for a private lunch. Jl. Dewisita No. 09C, Ubud, Kecamatan Ubud, Kabupaten Gianyar, Bali 80571, Indonesia, locavore.co.id/nusantara
Room 4 Dessert: Dessert is the main event at Chef Will Goldfarb’s groundbreaking cafe. Enter through a culinary garden where many of the evening’s dishes find their inspiration. The full 21-course tasting menu with small savory dishes, cocktail pairings and 14 dessert bites can be a bit of a slog, especially if you’re jet-lagged. We recommend a light dinner and the seven-course dessert menu. Jl. Raya Sanggingan, Kedewatan, Kecamatan Ubud, Kabupaten Gianyar, Bali 80561, Indonesia, room4dessert.com
Hanging Gardens: Hidden deep in the jungle just north of Ubud, this uber-luxury resort is built on a 45-degree angle overlooking the Ayung River and ancient Dalem Segara temple. Embraced by a wild green landscape, the restaurant, pool and villas seem to hang in the air with an uninterrupted view of the plunging hillside. For a minimum of 300,000 rupiah (about $20) per person, you can ride the two-person funicular from the open-air lobby to the restaurant overlooking a double infinity pool. It is truly one of the most spectacular sights in the world (and awarded by travel magazines accordingly). Grab a few drinks on the patio and a snack while basking in the sun like a mogul. Buahan, Payangan, Gianyar Regency, Bali 80571, Indonesia, hanginggardensofbali.com
Ibu Susu: In the heart of downtown Ubud, it can be hard to find restaurants that don’t pander entirely to Western tastes. This small cafe is clearly frequented by foreigners but serves authentic Balinese and Pan-Asian dishes along with great cocktails. Hit up happy hour from 5 to 7 p.m. for drink deals. Favorite dishes include beef rendang (a slow-cooked beef in coconut milk), fresh betel leaf with salmon and tuna tartare or lemongrass chicken with papaya salad. Jl. Monkey Forest, Ubud, Kecamatan Ubud, Kabupaten Gianyar, Bali 80571, Indonesia, ibususu.com
Hotel Alila: The training ground for many local chefs, this hotel and resort typically offers high-end evening dining, but it has yet to reopen after the pandemic. Guests are treated to authentic breakfast dishes — rice porridge, nasi goring and gado gado and jamu (a tonic of herbs and spices). The poolside cafe also serves both Western and Balinese dishes. Desa, Melinggih Kelod, Payangan, Gianyar Regency, Bali 80572, Indonesia, alilahotels.com/ubud
Pyramids of Chi: Cleanse your soul and your stomach at this vegan wellness retreat and mystical energy garden. Centered around two soaring pyramids built to a one-sixteenth scale of the Pyramids of Giza, this place offers visitors sound and light healing classes inside the energy-channeling buildings. Though it’s easy to be skeptical, it’s hard to deny the feeling of body and mind renewal after an hour of meditating to ancient gongs and drums, especially for around $18 per person. The cafe offers plant-based, organic Western cuisine with fresh juices, baked goods, salads and even cocktails and wine. Jalan Kelebang Moding No. 22 Banjar Bentuyung Ubud, Tegallalang, Kec. Tegallalang, Kabupaten Gianyar, Bali 80571, Indonesia, pyramidsofchi.com
One note: Bali’s tourism has been ravaged by the pandemic. The country was closed to outside visitors for nearly two and a half years, collapsing much of the economy and closing many great restaurants and tourism spots. If you go, check to see if businesses have reopened.
Lebanese kitchen opens in Sonoma
There’s some hummus among us with the opening of Spread Kitchen in Boyes Hot Springs.
The former Sonoma Eats (18375 Sonoma Highway) is the first brick-and-mortar restaurant for chef/owner Cristina Topham, best known for her catering and farm market offerings. Chef de Cuisine Nick Urban heads up the kitchen, serving fresh pita with hummus, beef and chicken shawarma, chickpea and black bean falafel and beef and lamb kofta.
All proteins (including the vegetarian jackfruit shawarma) are available with pita, in a bowl with tabouleh and a fresh “grain of the day,” as a salad or as “dirty fries” with pickled onion, herbs and yogurt sauce.
Don’t miss the Toum, a creamy whipped garlic sauce that’s irresistible on za’atar fries (and available for takeout). A large outdoor patio is perfect for summer dining.
Open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday through Monday. spreadkitchensonona.com, 707-934-7559.