Chefs and food writers including Anthony Bourdain and Rick Stein have eaten suckling pig at Ibu Oka and given it such high praise that I was genuinely over-excited to try this place when we were in Ubud last month. So much so that when we turned up and they had run out of part of the dish we left and went back the next day to make sure we had the full experience.
Babi Guling (suckling pig) is a very traditional Balinese dish and especially so in Ubud, where it’s sold at many restaurants. It’s Ibu Oka’s speciality and the reason they became so well known. They now have three sites around Ubud and I think we ate at the newest one. A large impersonal dining room is hidden down an alley not far from the Ubud Palace. We were able to sit at the open side with a view over a wooded valley. A wooded valley that smelled like death and landfill.
On recommendation, we went for the house special, priced at 55,000 IDR – around £3.50. The special consists of pork meat, crispy skin, fried pork and black pudding sausage served with rice, sambal and a side salad.
In less than 5 minutes the bowls were plonked down in front of us by sullen waiting staff. The rice was hot but everything else luke-warm. The pork meat was boney and tasteless, the skin was nice but with a thick layer of fat and not too much crackling. The black pudding sausage was nice but such a small piece it was hardly worth the effort. The bulk of the dish was rice. If I can muster a compliment it’d be about the fried pork. Very crispy and well seasoned; it tasted like KFC – is that a good thing? Not sure.
I spoke to a few people on Instagram about our experience at Ibu Oka because I had been so SO ready to love it and couldn’t quite compute what we’d just eaten to what I was expecting to eat. It seems that they’d had the same experience. Perhaps through their rapid growth in popularity, Ibu Oka has lost their charm. I think this is what happens when a small family-run place is catapulted to stardom. Naturally, they want to expand and feed more people and of course, make more money. But I can’t help feel that in this example, that something special has been lost along the way.