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Monday, September 28, 2009

Paying Homage to Durga in Jakarta

Sept. 28 (Jakarta Globe) The Temple of Shiva in Pluit, West Jakarta, has been a riot of color, sound and incense for the past five days as Indians living in the Indonesian capital gathered to celebrate Durga Puja, an annual festival to honor the Hindu goddess.

The festival, which finished on Monday, is the major event in the calendar of the Jakarta Bengali Association, which celebrated its 25-year anniversary in 2008.

Association president Madhu Adya said Durga, the wife of Shiva, was invoked to protect from evil.

“In Hinduism, we say the female consort always depicts the power,” she said.

A priest from Calcutta officiated over the events, leading those gathered as they recited verses in Sanskrit. Saturday was the most important day of the festival, with the Indian ambassador to Indonesia, Viren Nanda, joining a crowd of 200 in their finest saris and tunics to pay homage to an icon of Durga.

Adya said that on the last day of the puja (worship) in India, the Durga icon would be taken to the sacred River Ganges and immersed.

“Here we take it to Ancol and immerse it in the sea,” she said, referring to a smaller clay version of the icon at the local festival.

In addition to the religious aspect, the festival had a strong cultural component with drawing and coloring contests for children as well as recitals and musical performances. Traditional dishes were also prepared by the community to be shared by guests following the worship each day.

“Back in India, you have special editions of magazines and books to celebrate the event,” Adya said.

“It’s very typical of the Eastern side of India.”

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Restaurant Review: Rustique, Plaza Senayan, Jakarta

Sept. 17 (Jakarta Globe) I try to avoid superlatives in reviews, but at Rustique Grill and Wine I ate what was unquestionably the best steak I’ve ever tasted, and I’ve dined at some of America’s (and Australasia’s) finest (and most expensive) steakhouses. The secret — executive chef Fany Hermawan dry-ages his own beef, hanging it in a temperature- and climate-controlled storeroom for from 18 to 40 days, depending on the particular cut. The result — beef so tender that both myself and my dining companion lay down our cutlery after our first bites, sat back and breathed “Wow!”

Such a treat on its own would bring me back regularly, but Rustique does not rest on its signature dish alone. The restaurant, which celebrated its second anniversary on Aug. 1, also offers innovative seafood dishes, inventive takes on classic dishes and truly sinful desserts.

Chef Fany’s family moved to Australia while he was still in school, and before returning to his native Indonesia he trained and worked at some of that country’s most acclaimed restaurants. The Australian influence can be seen in the fresh, innovative combinations on his menu. Joining him in the kitchen recently is Japanese chef de cuisine Shigetoshi “Gio” Uramoto who, after 10 years in San Francisco restaurants, brings his own style of Japanese-American-European fusion .

A quieter but just as important presence in Rustique is co-owner Christoph Darjanto, who has taken the lessons learned from a family of restaurateurs and created a space that is comfortable and welcoming while still impressively elegant.

My friend Lisa and I had already decided we would sample Rustique’s steak as a main course and wanted to share a seafood dish to begin, but had difficulty selecting from the interesting choices. We finally settled on a seafood salad, featuring squid, prawns, scallops and fish in a spicy dressing atop a bed of warm sauteed carrot, zucchini and yellow pepper. The julienned vegetables complemented the seafood well and we quickly cleaned the plate.

On the meat menu, either rib-eye or sirloin steak is available in various weights, or non dry-aged tenderloin or tenderloin wagyu beef. There is also a grilled meat sampler, offering Australian rib-eye and US tenderloin alongside chicken in a coconut sauce, or diners can select from prime rib, chicken breast or lamb rack.

We had come for the steak, however, so ordered a dry-aged rib-eye, medium-rare. From a choice of eight sauces and nine side dishes (including potatoes served six ways), we selected a red wine jus, a mushroom jus, sauteed spinach and sauteed mushrooms.

We completed our meal with an orange custard pudding with hot orange sauce and a dark valrhona chocolate fondant with hazelnut praline ice cream. The chocolate dessert contained a hot sauce offset perfectly by the ice cream and I was tempted to lick the plate clean.

Rustique has a warm, softly lit decor, with an open kitchen, brick walls and huge black mirrors opening out the space. The staff are attentive without being annoying, a balancing act that is not always easy to achieve. Add in an extensive wine list compiled by the head bartender, who recently placed fourth in an international sommelier competition, and there was nothing we could fault the restaurant on.

Rustique Grill and Wine
Plaza Senayan
Level P4 #413
Jl. Asia Afrika No. 8
Jakarta 10270
Tel. 021 5785 2760

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Restaurant Review: Maroush, Crowne Plaza Hotel, Jakarta

Sept. 10 (Jakarta Globe) I shared a house in Cambridge, England, with a Moroccan couple for six months and my memories of that time are of sweet mint tea, made any time guests visited and served from a silver teapot in delicate glasses, the warm smell of exotic spices and the wonderful dishes the wife made in her tagine, so tender the meat fell from the bones.

So a visit to Maroush — the Moroccan and Middle Eastern restaurant in the Crowne Plaza Hotel — was eagerly anticipated.

Walking through the metal studded doors of the restaurant, one goes from the bright marble of the hotel’s lobby to a rich, warm Mid-Eastern decor, where the aroma of spices merges with the sweet smoke from burbling shisha pipes.

The restaurant can be sectioned off using draperies and dark wooden doors and also has two private rooms available for meetings, meals or parties. The green room seats eight in an elegant setting and the more sultry red room has a stunning hand-carved table that comfortably holds 14 seated diners. I chose a round table near an exterior window with a long sofa strewn with cushions and soft enough to sink into and want to stay.

My friend was joining me there and I’d arrived a little early, so I ordered Moroccan tea while I waited and found the sweet, mint-filled beverage as good as my housemates used to make.

When Nataya arrived, we opted to begin with a mixed mezze plate, to sample a few of the cold appetizers. The metal plate arrived with the dips garnished with boiled eggs and a cucumber and tomato salad, and accompanied by pita and Turkish lava bread. The selection included hummus, a spiced eggplant dip and a salad with char-grilled peppers — all good and I especially enjoyed the eggplant laced liberally with garlic, tomato and olive oil.

We followed the mezze with a hot appetizer from the many available, selecting the fresh tuna in filo pastry. The dish combined the tuna with onion, harissa and finely chopped capers, the flavor of which permeated the filling, in a feathery paper-thin golden pastry.

Nataya doesn’t like lamb so we chose chicken as our main dish, cooked in a tagine with lemon and olives.

As I expected, the chicken was wonderfully tender and the vegetable-laden stew rich and tasty, with the saltiness of the olives undercut by the acidity of the lemon.

Maroush is also a good option for those who don’t eat meat as the menu offers many vegetarian options, from appetizers to a full page of tempting main dishes.

We rounded off our meal with a selection of pastries, including baklava — layers of filo pastry surrounding chopped pistachios sweetened with a homemade honey syrup — and filo stuffed with almonds and cream.

The baklava was too sweet for me but enjoyed by Nataya, and I happily finished the less sweet filo choice, which came lightly dusted with cinnamon and icing sugar and served on a vanilla sauce.

Chef Abderrahim Touqo also custom makes Moroccan mini pastries, cookies and other sweets, which can be ordered in advance or bought at the restaurant’s new patisserie.

Maroush has an extensive wine selection and a champagne bar featuring bubbly by the bottle, glass or in cocktails.

The shisha lounge offers 10 flavors for those who enjoy the sweet smoke, and there is also a selection of well-priced cigars, from Cuba, the Dominican Islands and Indonesia.

And for a truly authentic experience, outside of Ramadan the restaurant also features belly dancing on Friday and Saturday nights.

I plan to enjoy that, and sample the lamb, on a subsequent visit.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Restaurant Review: Dapur Babah, Jakarta

Sept. 03 (Jakarta Globe) Stepping through the doors of Dapur Babah Elite feels like stepping back in time. My friend Maria and I arrived an hour late, having battled through Jakarta’s traffic for more than two hours before she gave up, parked her car and we took motorcycle taxis the remainder of the way. But the bustle of modern Jakarta disappeared as we entered the restaurant, to find ourselves in an old-style tea shop, with antique tea sets, glass jars of cookies on the counters and photographs of distinguished Babah families on the walls.

Babah is the term used for the culture that resulted from the intermarriage of Chinese settlers and Javanese women during the Dutch colonial era. Babah cuisine was a fusion of both culinary traditions, with the addition of a Dutch influence.

Similarly, the decor of Dapur Babah is a melange of cultural influences, featuring antiques and artifacts from as early as the 17th century, and statues depicting Chinese, Hindu and Buddhist gods. Owner/designer Anhar Setjadibrata, who also owns Tugu Hotels and is an avid collector of Indonesian antiques, refurbished and decorated the two 1940s shop-houses in which the restaurant is located, creating a series of rooms all with their own unique atmosphere and fascinating stories.

The staff are well-versed in the history of the mementos and a visit to dine easily turns into an enjoyable history lesson.

Our visit was hosted by sales and marketing executive Meggie Windari, who graciously showed us through the various rooms, explaining the history behind the furnishings and photographs as we went. My favorites were the Tao bar with its mix of Indonesian, Hindu, Thai and Buddhist influences and the outdoor terrace, inspired by an early Babah kitchen.

Maria preferred the Chinese-inspired room, complete with a goddess to watch over it.

Meggie had ordered our meals for us and we started with fried tofu, served with petis — a sweet black shrimp paste — and acar — a spicy salad accompaniment containing cucumber, shallots and chili. The creamy tofu went well with the paste and was brought alive by the bite of the acar.

A chicken soup with galangal followed, also containing rice noodles, tofu, potato, tomato, Chinese cabbage and boiled egg. Served with kerepuk rambak — crackers made from cow skin — and sambal , this was similar to soto ayam but with the addition of Chinese flavors.

Both of us happily had seconds and this dish has become my favorite version of chicken noodle soup, and the one I’ll crave if I’m ever in need of a tasty pick-me-up. Maria, who is Javanese herself, said it tasted like a homemade soup to her — a great recommendation.

Our main meal was more of a fusion item, bringing the Dutch influence into the mix as well. Described on the menu as a “modified schnitzel of thinly-sliced rolls of tenderloin wrapped in minced shrimps with cheese in the middle, batter-fried in egg and breadcrumbs,” it was not a dish I would have chosen myself, fearing the flavors would not mesh.

Served with a tomato-based sauce, steamed vegetables and fries, the dish was well-presented but, unfortunately, not to the taste of either of us. The minced mixture surrounding the meat lacked an identifiable flavor and the sauce was overpowering.

We rounded off our meal with a shaved ice dessert, a refreshing mix of fruits, including baby coconut, and avocado in a sweet syrup.