Jalan Pesinggahan, about 7 km southwest of Padang Bai on the main through road to Kusamba (heading from the south, turn left a few hundred metres before Goa Lawah, and it’s 500 metres down to the right)
This is the sort of restaurant any traveller likes to stumble upon: it’s out of the way, serves just one thing, and does that one thing well. At Warung Mertha Sari, there’s no menu, with diners ordering simply by the number of portions they’d like of their specialty, sate lilit ikan, or minced fish sate. But this isn’t all you get; thrown into the deal is chunks-of-fish sate, barbecued minced fish pockets, fish soup laced with turmeric, sambal, wok-fried beans with coconut, crunchy hot peanuts and steamed white rice. It’s a veritable feast (and two of us ate for 70,000 rupiah in total).
The decor is — well, let’s just say decor wasn’t foremost in anyone’s mind here. You walk through an area with bamboo tables you can sit at and eat Javanese style on raised mini-platforms, or go through into another pavilion with plastic-covered tables and sturdy wooden chairs. We arrived after the lunchtime rush and the area was strewn with litter. To one side three guys sat shaping the sate onto pieces of flattened bamboo and barbecuing the pieces over coals, encouraging the flames with an electric fan and waving the hand-held kind as well.
Not much English is spoken, but just point at how many people you want fed and within a few minutes, the sides will arrive; go on, spoon some of that spicy Asian shallot and chilli sambal onto your rice, sprinkle over some of the peanuts, and add some green beans to the mix. We loved the beans, which would no doubt be crunch-fresh if served in a fancy place, but here are kind of soggy — in a strange, good way. Aren’t you tired of good-for-you-crispy-veggies?
Within a few spoonfuls of this mix, during which you’ll no doubt discuss how you never realised peanuts could actually be so very good, your plate of fish sate will arrive.
The fall-off-the-bamboo-shard minced fish morsels steal the show, flavourful enough on their own to not need any kind of dipping sauce. The chunks of fish on thin, standard skewers seem to have been marinated or basted in some kind of sweet sauce that again negates a need for anything else to be added, and the pockets of minced fish are quite gently flavoured.
Then there’s the soup, a luscious broth with yet more fish chunks. We couldn’t finish ours.
We had two kids with us well; one just had a little plain rice but our six-year-old delved into the sate and pockets easily handled the slight spiciness — it’s the sambal that’s got kick, so if you’re a bit sensitive leave it, but if you’re a fan, ladle that sunshine right on.
Warung Mertha Sari gained some renown when it got a mention in the New York Times in 2009; since then it seems they’ve got a tiled rather than thatched roof, and you do see the occasional foreigner stopping here, but not much on the culinary front, it seems, has changed.
And if you love fish and love warung-style dining, you should also not miss Warung Mak Beng in Sanur.
By Stuart McDonald
Last updated on 21st April, 2015.