A day in Ubud lost to a stomach flu, I woke up not feeling quite back to normal, but there was no time to waste. A trip to the market was in order; the local food market in Ubud is only open in the morning and by midday it has transformed into a tourist market, with jacked-up prices and souvenir trinkets. We arrived around 8 am to the market in full swing.
Southeast Asian local wet markets are similar, but each has its own unique characteristics and products. Ubud’s immediately distinguished itself by its flower vendors. Being a Hindu community, offerings to the deities are an integral part of daily life. Little offerings are piled on the hundreds of shrines around town, on the doorsteps of homes and businesses, and pretty much everywhere. These offerings usually consist of a small tray fashioned from a banana or palm leaf, holding a few flowers and usually a pinch of cooked rice.
Ubud goes through a lot of flowers, and the morning market was the distribution point. The riot of color and scent was stunning.
Once past the flower vendors, the market took on the typical wet market characteristics, with women squatted behind piles of foraged or farmed vegetables, fruits, and spices, interspersed with others hawking prepared foods.
Of note, on the basement level are a few spice vendors selling beautiful local vanilla beans, nutmeg, star anise, ground dried ginger, turmeric, and galangal, and a large variety of other dried spices. There are a few vendors on the street level, but the further you head into the market, the less inflated the prices are, though a bit of haggling is customary. Also on the basement level are a large number of food stalls with various noodles, soups, chicken, pork, and rice dishes. Still a bit queasy, I unfortunately didn’t partake.
A few hours of rest back in the room, and I decided it was time to show my guts exactly who was running the show here. No more time could be spared. I girded my loins and dove back into the enjoyment of Ubud. First order of business: more roast suckling pig, this time from the source.
Tucked down a back alley, Ibu Oka is the king of babi gulung, Ubud’s signature roast suckling pig. These guys seem to have founded the industry here, and apparently go through 30 pigs or more a day. The pigs are stuffed with an amazing assortment of herbs and spices, hand turned on a spit over a fire of coconut husks and coffee plant wood, and basted with coconut oil and coconut water. For truly excellent photo coverage of the whole process, check out this post at 3000 Acre Kitchen.
We arrived at Ibu Oka, which is a veritable shrine to the porcine gods. The faucets of the hand sinks are embedded in piglets, and two large fountains feature a couple of broods of porkers tumbling over each other.
Our platters of pork and fixings arrive, along with a couple of cold beers, and it was every bit as good as my first babi guling.
My gut put in check by a healthy dose of pork and beer, we spent the afternoon touring the beautiful rice paddies and countryside surrounding Ubud on our rented scooter.
In the evening, a bit uncharacteristically, we decided to go for a bit of culture. There are nightly performances of traditional Balinese dance accompanied by gamelan orchestra at a few of the large temples. It is definitely worth doing this – beautiful dancing, costumes, and music in front of an ancient temple surrounded by water lily filled ponds.
Feeling freshly cultured, it was time to head back to the feed trough. To further ease my stomach back into things, we headed to Naughty Nuri’s, a restaurant known for putting out fantastic ribs and BBQ, and lauded by Anthony Bourdain as having one of the “best martinis in the world” outside of NYC. A rack of excellent ribs and a brutally strong dirty martini did us right.
To round out the day, right next door to Naughty Nuri’s is Room4Dessert. Room4Dessert was a dessert tasting restaurant in Manhattan a few years back, opened by Will Goldfarb, a world class pastry chef. I remember hearing plenty about him, then he seemed to just disappear. It turns out he had moved to Bali and decided to stay, running a pastry lab at a high-end restaurant on the resort beach of Semanyak. It also turns out he had rebooted Room4Dessert in Ubud just a few weeks before our visit, which I fortuitously discovered when looking up restaurants on TripAdvisor.
It’s been a good while since I’ve been able to enjoy any haute cuisine, especially some which explores the flavors of Southeast Asia, so we had to stop in for a dessert tasting. The building is cavernous and decorated in quirky art and murals, moody lighting, and loungey chairs. Within a few minutes Will himself came over to serve us. I introduced myself and we had a brief chat, then we ordered a dessert tasting and a couple of cocktails.
The cocktails and desserts were fantastic, and going with the tasting was a good idea – it turns out the desserts we wouldn’t have ordered ended up being our favorites. Their cocktail list offers inventive takes on classic cocktails, usually with local touches. It was so nice to be able to get a great Manhattan, and a pomelo daiquiri was a nice finisher.
The dessert tasting menu was a lengthy tour de force. Don’t tackle it by yourself if you’ve spent your day stuffing your face with pork. We got the Remi Tasting, which is small portions of all nine courses, and even that was pushing it for two people. The “Cheezus West” was both of our absolute favorites, which isn’t surprising for me, as I lean much more towards the savory than the sweet. This was simply a badass take on a cheese course in the form of a really good grilled cheese made with house made ciabatta and camembert, along with more local accoutrements like rosella jam and langsat raisins. The “sugar refinery 2.0” was also a real standout.
After we were stuffed to capacity with sweets and cocktails, Will took me back to show me his kitchen and explain a bit about what they are doing. What I was really blown away by was that he told me they are doing everything there “analog.” Meaning he has none of the state-of-the-art laboratory-grade equipment he is known for using to produce his highly technical desserts – no dehydrators, rotovaps, etc. He uses a mortar and pestle for almost everything, and makes everything from complete scratch. It was also very impressive that he spent most of the night on the floor, serving customers. It is rare to see food at that level without the chef (or well-trained chef de cusine) over-seeing every plate. It’s a testament to how well he has trained his staff, especially for just a few weeks in, that they can execute at this level.
Room4Dessert is definitely not cheap – we could have fed ourselves for a day or more in Bali on the price of dessert (~$30) and drinks (~$7 each), but it was still a great steal for a world-class dining experience. It was a perfect way to round out the Ubud stay, though I am definitely planning on a return trip to explore all of the other food I missed, and possibly to try to spend some time in Room4Dessert’s kitchen.