Breezy, cosmopolitan Mama San has been seducing diners on Bali with its pan-Asian cuisine since it opened in 2011. Now it's branching out: the restaurant, run by Will Meyrick, is set to open a Hong Kong outlet in the next few weeks.
Scotsman Meyrick, who arrived in Bali after travelling through Asia and spending a few years working in Australia at well-regarded Longrain and Jimmy Liks, and then enjoying a stint in Hong Kong, is the brains behind Sarong, his original Bali restaurant, as well as Mama San and most recently E&O (Eastern & Oriental) in Jakarta.
Meyrick and Thai business partner and chef Palm Amatawet have travelled extensively in the region, especially in Indonesia, winkling out traditional recipes from street-food chefs and discovering the stories behind them before putting their own take on them. They'll be showcasing their discoveries at Mama San Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, negotiations are also under way on opening outlets in Kuala Lumpur and London, and two more restaurants in Bali - one a 1970s-inspired eatery focused on Indonesian food, to be called Maluku, and the other, Mama San Thai.
With Meyrick's restaurant mini-empire growing at such a rate, it's a surprise to find him prepping veggies in his chef's whites when we meet to discuss his Hong Kong venture. The move sees Meyrick's Mama San brand partner with Sandeep Sekhri's Dining Concepts, which will add the restaurant to its dining outlets.
The look of Mama San Hong Kong, Meyrick says, sipping on a Coke as he takes a break, will be similar to the elegant, vintage-looking Mama San Bali, where gleaming marble and dark wooden tables skirt a sprawling brown leather banquette, and Mama San herself demurely glances at diners from her painted perch on a wall. Expect dripping black chandeliers, ottomans on splayed legs, blood red lamps, olive velvet cushions and black-and-white framed retro photos on the other walls.
"We've shipped everything in containers [from Bali]," Meyrick says.
But the menu will be a touch different. "This is simply because you already have very good Thai and Vietnamese food in Hong Kong," says Meyrick, who opened Lotus in Hong Kong in 2006 before heading to Bali and starting his acclaimed street-food inspired restaurants.
"There needs to be a certain element of originality in there, a little bit of a twist, because you are going to get more of the expat market," he says. "It will be 'Australian-Asian' rather than 'Asian-Asian', because you can get great Thai food from the local Thai restaurant right next door. Why do what they already do very well?"
Dishes are likely to include Chinese-style roasted pork belly with yellow bean soya and kaffir lime; barbecue duck steamed buns with hoisin, Asian celery and chilli sauce; crispy salmon with green mango and sweet fish sauce; chicken massaman curry with shallots, pumpkin, potato, peanuts and tamarind; beef rendang braised in coconut milk; and the Padang dish "Dendeng balado", caramelised beef short ribs with kaffir lime, chilli and lemon basil.
Desserts will include E&O's Nutella steamed buns with coconut ice cream and Vietnamese coffee. "The idea is it should be fun - still casual and not too serious," Meyrick says.
While Meyrick will design the menu, train the staff, and cook with them around the opening, he's handing over details of the kitchen set-up and flow to Palm.
"I just get angry now [over details], so it's better I don't get too involved in setting up the kitchen," he admits. "I do still micro-manage, but I have Palm - he's 30, so he's got more patience than I have now."
The opening in Hong Kong should be easier than that of Meyrick's E&O, which was built for 400 to 500 covers per day. Mama San Hong Kong will cater to around 140.
One of the more gratifying results of expansion, Meyrick says, is seeing opportunities emerge for his long-time staff to work abroad.
Sarong's head chef, Gede Budiani, will be taking the reins at Mama San Hong Kong. "The idea is for us to be there, as the support network for these guys we've trained for 10 years now - hopefully, they can run the kitchen just as we would."
Waiters will also be heading to Hong Kong, earning a better salary than in Bali, and experiencing life in a world-class city - "not a box on a cruise ship", Meyrick says, referring to the fact that Balinese hospitality workers are sought after by international shipping lines.
With Kuala Lumpur and London also on the horizon, they are excited. "All of a sudden we have the staff going, 'You know what, I would like to do a year in London, or wherever'. We're giving them an opportunity to grow and develop, and no one else really has that here [in Bali], unless you're in the big hotels."
Sourcing produce in Hong Kong will be relatively easy, he says, with most ingredients coming directly from Thailand and Vietnam. It will be easier than working in Indonesia, where import restrictions can be a headache.
In Bali, where he has a wife and three children, Meyrick is now working to expand a farm that was about to go bankrupt, owned by the father of a waiter. The longer-term plan is for the farm to provide all the pigs, chickens and produce for his restaurants in Bali.
In Hong Kong, Meyrick, who has won a reputation for championing Indonesian cuisine locally as well as internationally, plans to use Mama San to promote Indonesian produce - boutique coffees and tea, shrimp paste, cashew nuts, for instance - to an international market.
"I don't know many brands, maybe fashion labels but not restaurants, that have left Bali, gone overseas and started promoting Indonesia," he says.
So what's changed on the food scene in Hong Kong since Meyrick last worked there eight years ago? "It's what's changed all over Asia, and I've noticed it in Jakarta, too: the rise of steaks and Italian. Everyone wants them." Steakhouses in particular are easy to set up, and have simple business models: "You cook a piece of meat and serve vegetables with it," he says.
Meyrick reckons now is the right time to pounce with his signature array of dishes from across Asia.
"Hopefully, we've shown we can cook all of it correctly, authentically, but with a sense of originality as well. I think Hong Kong is ready for it."