IN THE 2½ years since former Sydneysider Kath Townsend took on the executive chef role at luxury Ubud resort Maya, she has witnessed a momentum that shows no signs of slowing.
''This season has been insane … and my first one was a record for Bali, despite the global financial crisis in Australia,'' Townsend says. ''The high season used to start at the end of June; now it starts at the beginning, even in Ubud, and we're supposed to be the village, boutique area.''
Townsend has worked in Vietnam, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, and spent several years as Bill Granger's right-hand woman at Bills in Darlinghurst.

Ubud duck.
Ubud duck, three ways, at Maya.

She says there has been an influx of Australian chefs in Bali. It can feel as if there are more award-winning foreign chefs and restaurateurs there now than there are surfers, at least in the busiest areas of Seminyak, Legian and Ubud.
Townsend reels off a few names: Stephen Moore, a former Rockpool guy at Cocoon Beach Club in Kuta; and in Ubud, Nicolas Lazzaroni, a chef who made a name for himself in Byron Bay and ''takes his food very seriously at Bridges''.
''The general managers here really like Aussie chefs,'' Townsend says. ''They think we have a 'give it a go' attitude. I've been employable in Asia because they tell me I'm not like some European chefs; I don't have the 'this is my kitchen, stay out' attitude. We get on with it.''

Food at Ku De Ta in Bali.
A dish at Davenport's Ku De Ta. Photo: Christopher Leggett

There are many theories about the flourishing dining scene. One highlights the ''new'' money coming in from Jakarta, China, Russia and India. There is also the fact that Italians and the French have always loved Bali and, as economic woes dog Europe, the island's value for money, great weather and exoticism make it a perfect alternative.
Australian interest is also part of the picture: the number of Australian tourists choosing Bali for their holidays rose about 27 per cent (on the previous year) and was nudging 350,000 in the first half of last year.
New Zealander Phil Davenport is executive chef at Ku De Ta in Seminyak. Like many of his island-bound colleagues, Davenport was known in Australia - as head chef at Bondi's Hugo's - before taking his career on the road, including a stint at a private club in London's Mayfair and at a boutique resort on the Caribbean island of Antigua.

Metis, Bali.
The lounge and restaurant at Metis.

Davenport says he sees ''different people in different seasons''. July for Australians, for example, August for the French and Italians, January for the Russian Christmas revellers and Chinese New Year for guests from Singapore and Hong Kong. Then there is the local community, which includes a considerable French expat population of about 25,000.
Prahran-based architect Charlie Salter designed the stunning Metis restaurant in Kerobokan, next to Seminyak, with Denpasar-based, Australian-educated Shinta Siregar from Nexus Studio. He has another theory: ''Bali is like the Gold Coast for people with money in Perth. It's just a three-hour flight, so plenty of Aussies own properties there. Consequently, you'll see the restaurants full of an older crowd, who are after an elegant, complete dining experience. They're the kind of people you'll see at Sarong.''
Also in Kerobokan, Sarong is the opulent restaurant-cum-lounge from Will Meyrick, former chef at Sydney's Jimmy Liks and Longrain. It's a bit like Donovan's sexier, hot-blooded sister, with plush furniture, juxtapositions of style and plenty of room for lounging.

Maya Sari.
Maya Sari restaurant in Ubud.

Metis is fine dining as envisioned by Nicolas ''Doudou'' Tourneville and Said Alem, two men known for another popular place, Warisan. The downstairs section of the restaurant is arranged in a U shape. Tuck into sashimi-style scallops, or stuffed zucchini flowers, as you look out over lily-filled ponds, which are spotlit at night. Metis mixes food, shopping and design with boutiques and galleries through the complex, a concept Warisan pioneered.
But it is catering that Salter says the Metis guys have really tapped into. There is big business to be had in Bali, with customers coming from Jakarta, China, India and elsewhere. From wedding receptions and cocktail parties to anniversaries or corporate events, people are looking for places outside of big hotels to host large functions. This could mean somewhere such as Metis but also at the large walled villas popping up all over the island.
Regular visitors to Bali have their favourites, depending on where they stay, and new ones are constantly appearing. La Lucciola, the thatched-roof grand dame on Seminyak beach, remains a romantic and sentimental favourite, the kind of place at which one might pop the question.
Gado Gado, also by the water, is a beautiful spot to tuck into a nest of angel-hair pasta with chilli crab or a smoked-salmon sandwich with hand-cut coleslaw for lunch. The venue's huge deck looks out on swimmers and men selling kites and it appeals to couples and families alike. A large tree grows up through the deck, its long, low arm reaching down over the waiters' station, meaning the serving staff have to limbo to get to their equipment; there's also a bar that beckons for a sunset cocktail.
Sarong is a gorgeous night out, welcoming and serving Asian street food that's had a million-dollar makeover. Try the twice-cooked pork belly with mandarin slices on the side, the salt-and-pepper squid or the naan stuffed with lamb and yoghurt.
Ku De Ta has a reputation as the place where Bali goes to party. An elegantly sprawling design means serious diners remain undisturbed by the drinkers on the rooftop beer garden.
What drives chefs such as Davenport to go to so much trouble to create dishes of a standard that appeals to the Miele Guide?
''We're professionals,'' he says. ''We're going to give the best we've got. I'm employed to do a good job. It's my career, my legacy and reputation. We want to be known as a food destination. Chefs don't want to just work at beach bars.''

Bebek betutu or babi guling? Best of Balinese is worth the hunt

MANY of Bali's hippest restaurants concentrate on Mediterranean cuisine or fusion styles - indigenous Balinese cooking is rarely the focus. Shinta Siregar, who helped design Metis in Kerobokan, says this might be because the Asian clientele snaps up local chefs for their private villas. ''This food is often superb and you wouldn't be able to find it in any restaurant,'' she says. Siregar's own live-in Javanese cook is so popular she caters for the architect's friends and colleagues. At lunchtime she heads off on her motorbike to deliver food.
Siregar loves Padang food of West Sumatra and cites as favourites La Pau at Sanur, where ''mum does the cooking, great beef rendang'', and Warung Batavia in Seminyak.
Phil Davenport enjoys eating at Bambuku in Kuta where ''they make stuff for lunch and, once it's gone, it's gone''. He says Jimbaran Bay, home of seafood grilled with Balinese sauces, is worth a sundown visit - Menega Cafe is a favourite.
Maya's Kath Townsend likes Ubud's healthy eating options - Bali Buddha and Naughty Nuri's. She says these are popular with ''the EPLs'' coming to Ubud (EPL refers to visitors inspired by Elizabeth Gilbert's book Eat, Pray, Love). She likes to eat nasi champur, Indonesian mixed rice, and the distinctive Balinese Bumbu spice mix - ''highly medicinal''.
A member of the Slow Food movement and its founder in Ubud, Townsend loves slow-roasted Balinese duck, bebek betutu. ''It's marinated in a special spice mix, using the lean ducks from the rice paddies, wrapped in banana leaves, then wrapped in coconut husks and baked in the ground. You need to order a day in advance.''
Babi guling is Bali's famous roast pig. Townsend's diners enjoy a version ordered in from a local roaster. Ubud is also home to Ibu Oka, the place where Anthony Bourdain had what he called ''the best pig ever''.

Expensive drop

WINE prices remain a sticking point everywhere you go in Bali - in the range of $75 for a bottle of Peter Lehmann shiraz at Metis.
While Bali is Hindu, Indonesia is a Muslim country, so the sale of alcohol, and the taxing of it, remains tricky. Those in the know suggest trying Chilean drops or something from California as alternatives. The island is overpopulated with ''mixologists'', so cocktails are plentiful and inexpensive.
If beer is more your thing, it's available at many convenience stores. The original local tipples, Bali Hai and Bintang, are (thankfully) now up against newcomer Storm Brewing, a pale ale full of hoppy goodness, similar to Fat Yak. Many places also sell Carlsberg, San Miguel and Heineken.