Firstly there was a small warung selling Thai food to the local surfers at Padang-Padang beach in Pecatu up on The Bukit. Now there is a full restaurant on Sanur [air-conditioned inside for the non-smokers, a street-side terrace for the rest]. You may think that Thai cuisine and the surfing culture are strange bedfellows, but as many of the latter are Australian born it should not be a mystery? Thai cuisine is probably now Australia's no. 2 restaurant cuisine after Chinese, having long ago overtaken Italian and Indian for that honour, with Vietnamese rapidly catching up.
One of the great problems with Thai restaurants outside of Thailand is their inability or unwillingness to reproduce the extreme taste contrasts of that cuisine, and even if they do so the second problem is to balance all those complex tastes, not just throw them all in together.
At the same time what is most important is the food that finally ends up on your plate. If it tastes good, then it is good. No matter whether it is 100% original from the stated cuisine or just created a la minute in the kitchen behind.
Ulu does a bit of both. No better example than their Prawn Cakes. They bear no resemblance whatsoever to Tod Man Goong, but they are wonderful. Instead of minced prawn being beaten into balls [almost like the Shrimp Balls that are on their menu] small prawns [whole] are combined with shredded vegetables in a tempura-like batter and deep-fried, crispy crunchy, to be dipped in a 'sweet' chilli sauce that is much more chilli than sweet [thus missing out on one of those great taste contrasts of Thai cuisine].
Likewise their Spring Rolls, Po Pia Tod, which are presented cross-sliced, stuffed with shredded vegetables and their shell thin and crisp. The menu said with chilli sauce again, which is normal for deep-fries, but they came with an excellent cucumber relish Typical of what is normally served with the rather dry prawn/fish cakes to add moisture to them. Again not the combination you may expect but who cares, it works!
A main that I always order as one of my starters is Gai Ho Bai Toey. A dish that is exceptional when done well and can be abysmal when not, both occurrences sadly as common inside of Thailand as elsewhere in the world. At Ulu the marinated chicken pieces are not completely sealed within the pandanus leaf, just wrapped in strips, yet the meat is till tender, not dry. Although they are very good, and surprisingly so, the proper accompanying sweet soy and sesame sauce would have made them almost perfect.
Also on the Ulu menu is a rarely seen dish in Bali, Mee Grob. Thai rice noodles fried to a crisp then tossed in a sweet sauce of palm sugar, tamarind juice and fish oil amongst other ingredients. This one comes with fried tofu sticks and grilled prawns. Amazingly good! Order it with either the entrees or with your mains. This and many other Thai specials belie the oft-held belief that all Thai food is 'HOT', which is far from the truth. Whilst some dishes are it is the combination of hot, sweet, sour etc., at one sitting that provides the complexity of the Thai taste. Westerners far too often make the mistake of eating Thai food [and most other Asian ones as well] as individual meals, the same as they would do with European cuisines, rather than taking alternate spoonfuls from different dishes interspersed with the same of rice to cleanse the palate, thus sadly missing the whole Asian food experience.
Yes, Tom Yam Goong, that Thai classic soup of prawns and straw mushrooms in a hot sour broth, is on the menu at Ulu but so is the ambrosial Tom Kha Gai, chicken in creamy coconut milk with the tang of galangal [kha in Thai].
Curries and stir fries are the base of Thai food. The simplest and most popular stir fry is Chicken and Cashews, one of many dishes that have come to Thailand via China only to be vastly improved upon by the addition of more complex flavours! Tender breast slices are stir fried with onions, cashews and greens and flavoured with lemongrass. The chilli pods, normally fried but here presented fresh, are for garnish only. Again Ulu's version, Gai Pad Himapan, is very different to the more common Gai Pad Med Ma-Muang, though still enjoyed by all. Full of whole cashew nuts at Ulu not split to go further like at some other more expensive 'Thai' places in Bali.
Thai curries at Ulu are served inside whole coconuts, maybe a bit over-the-top though sure to be a hit with the tourists [cameras please]. What really matters is what is inside and their curries are excellent, though a little bit more oomph would not go astray. Their southern Paneng [red curry with crushed peanuts] is with beef but watch out for the sliced ginger. Also Green curries with either chicken or prawns. Open early morning for breakfast but sadly only the conventional Bali International tourist offerings. No Kai Jeow, my favourite Thai omelette, soft and fluffy, almost like bubbled egg [often stuffed with minced pork or sometimes wrapped around it with onions, even green peas added, but always with Sriracha sauce]. Or even the abominable but popular and tasty American Fried Rice. So easy to do in Bali that it is wonder why either or both are not on offer? Perhaps a lack of knowledge of really happens in Thailand?
As always, with any Asian cuisine, there are many vegetarian options; Mushroom Soup, Pad Pak Boon, Pad Kai Galam, Bangkok's Cauliflower with Egg. Som Tam, Pad Thai and many other dishes can also be ordered as pure vegetarian. No wine is served at all which is amazing but the fact that you are able to BYO, and only pay Rp.25,000 corkage, more than makes up for it!
The Sanur of 2010 promises to be very different to that of 2000. Although being Bali's oldest area for foreign occupation, it has also been the last to catch up with the cuisine revolution that began in Bali 15 years ago. Now it appears to be doing it in style and pleasantly so at budget prices. Ulu is a great addition to Sanur's dining options.