Immediate reactions to modern Indonesian restaurant Merah Putih in Bali — as delicious as the food is — aren’t about the cuisine, but its jaw-dropping interiors. If you didn’t know better, you would have thought you had walked into a rustic cathedral in the middle of Seminyak.
Merah Putih’s cavernous and naturally-lit dining room has a three-story high roof held in place by spindly pillars that glow with a hypnotic luminance. You’d half expect an old church organ to start playing.
It’s a beautiful place to be sipping cocktails and digging into locally-inspired dishes like Ayam Betutu (smoked Balinese chicken) and Nasi Goreng Bali (Balinese fried rice), especially at night.
“The roof was meant to be jagged, to represent Islamic culture, but I ran out of money,” founder and owner Jasper Manifold chuckles. “Then we used an industrial cellular tape and stretchy fabric to pull a roof over, which has taken a natural curve. When we were building the place, we worked overnight to ‘pull’ the fabric roof into the ground for one pillar, opened for dinner service, worked overnight on the second pillar, and so on.”
“The fabric material was brought over by hand luggage from Bandung. People think the pillars’ black lines are metal, but its actually industrial tape. If there’s ever an earthquake, all the tempered glass in Merah Putih won’t break, and the roof will literally go, ‘Boing’”.
The genius design is credited to one of Manifold’s mates, architect Norman Foster, who was in the team behind London’s iconic Gherkin building. Unknown to many, these hollow pillars in Merah Putih trap rainwater with a smart but expensive recycling system not many people know about.
“The water we recycle isn’t used for cooking, so don’t worry,” Manifold quickly assures.
There are 125 people on staff at Merah Putih, and about 20 in the kitchen and bar at any one time. Service is attentive, even though the restaurant serves 130 diners at a full-seating.
With the runaway success of Merah Putih, why won’t Manifold start another restaurant?
“It takes a lot of love, time and passion to do a restaurant like this. And I don’t have enough of those to do it again. If I start another restaurant somewhere else, I’ll have to spend time there.” Manifold also runs a much smaller, charcoal-cooking restaurant called Sangsaka.
“If the Merah Putih regulars don’t see me once, or twice, they’re never coming back again. I don’t say that arrogantly, and it sounds a bit sad, but that’s how it is.”
While he admits menu prices are steeper than local options for dishes like the Buntut Makassar (chargrilled oxtail, soy, peanuts and kluwek broth) and Bebek Menyat Nyat (duck curry), he also defends them.
“People say it’s expensive for Indonesian food, but I cook with produce imported from Australia, for dishes like Buleh Kambing (Australian lamb) or Sambal Matar (Fried fish wth homemade chilli), which makes it a good deal. The menu is also updated three times a year.”
“Prices in general have gone up across Bali with the opening of hotels like the W Hotel and the St. Regis,” Manifold says, “These places are not selling a room for $200 a night.”
But the dry-humoured restauranteur feels he’s accomplished an authenticity which money can’t buy.
“The Indonesians will sit at the table and taste the chilli sauce first. If that is good, like the ones they make at home, they will not care about anything else.”
Merah Putih is at Jalan Petitenget No. 100x, Kerobokan, Kuta Utara, Badung, Seminyak, Bali 80361, Indonesia | +62 361 8465950. Make a booking today on the Keyyes App, available on the App Store an Google Play.