by Laksmi Pamuntjak
* This article appeared in The Jakarta Globe, 2012
As with the first three restaurants I reviewed this year, I find little cause to complain after visiting this week’s list, which led me to deliciously healthy noodles, a new izakaya joint and fried chicken done right.
IWS Noodle Cafe
IWS Noodle Cafe in South Jakarta is a delightful surprise, managing to succeed at the hardest of stunts: delivering flavor-challenged South Jakartans with the best noodles on this side of Bakmi Alip (Mie Aheng and Bakmi Orpa must be its spiritual North Jakarta sisters).
IWS thrived, at least in the beginning, on the misconception that it only served organic foods. Although that’s not the case, the restaurant — and its food— does seem to cater to a healthy lifestyle.
Step inside and you’ll find a few white Laminex tables in a well-scrubbed and bright cafeteria setting, as well as a simple open kitchen with a gas stove. The neat pantry is stocked with white bowls of parsley, sesame oil and cut chilies, while lean minced chicken and freshly fried garlic are carefully laid out.
The noodles are simply fabulous. The regular and yamin (sweet soy sauce) varieties wring maximum flavor out of a full-bodied stock, though they still manage to taste light and wholesome. Kwetiau (flat rice noodles) and bihun (vermicelli) are also available, but remember, the real attraction — and IWS’s raison d’etre — is the mie ayam (noodles with chicken and soy sauce).
IWS Noodle Cafe
Dharmawangsa Square City Walk, Ground Floor, Unit 34
Jl. Dharmawangsa, South Jakarta
Alas, there is no single-minded certitude at Sumiya, the latest Japanese restaurant to join the food empire of Ueda-San, Jakarta’s izakaya king. As with Boci-Boci, Konoha, Akane and Tsukinofune, the operative words at Sumiya are low-key elegance.
Here you’ll find authentic, if refined, food; a sleek but understated decor; good jazz at humane decibel levels; and none of the usual Japanese restaurant excesses (the gushing greetings, extra long menus and inept Californication of everything).
True to its genre, the food comes on small plates, but it’s still more substantial than tapas or mezze. Rarely does an Ueda-San joint fail to offer the whole izakaya spectrum, which includes yakitori andkushiyaki (skewered meat), sashimi, kara-age (deep fried meat) and rice dishes. Try the rice with salmon and scallops, the yaki onigiri (grilled rice balls) or the sour plum ochazuke (hot tea poured over rice), as well as the zaru soba (cold soba noodles) and a variety of udon noodles.
I happen to be an unabashed sucker for Sumiya’s shake kyabetsu gyungu nabe (salmon and cabbage in milk soup) and its tofu kaisen miso nabe (tofu and seafood in miso soup). Both are elegant, low-calorie variations of the miso chanko nabe, traditionally served to sumo wrestlers to help them gain weight before a tournament.
Some other hits are the daikon (radish) salad, the kaibashira horenso butter itame (hot horenso spinach sauteed in butter) and the crab meat cream croquettes. The sushi and sashimi are just average, and the yakitori is clearly Konoha’s territory.
Perhaps the biggest draw of Sumiya — and the one aspect that adheres most to the grand tradition of great izakayas — is its location: a below-the-radar IT Mall. Tucked away in the back of a rather dodgy floor, amid a smattering of electronic and computer game stores, it has an under-the-tracks kind of credibility.
STC Senayan IT Mall
Ground Floor, Unit 128
Jl. Asia Afrika Pintu IX, South Jakarta
Last but not least, we have the antithesis of Sumiya: the padang food chain Pagi Sore, which is a cheeky take on Siang Malam (Noon Night), a worthy competitor.
At first glance, Pagi Sore screams “don’t try me,” with blazing signboards that seem more Disney than Dendeng-land. Even so, I was inspired by a gloomy good cheer one night and I decided to join the multitude.
It was the first working day after Idul Fitri celebrations and the staff looked like they had just been released from a deep freeze, so I had to wait a while for my table. I glanced around at the communal tables packed with big families, the food supplier barking weekend orders to his minions, the yellow, gray and purple walls and half-a-dozen patterned tiles bathed in bright canary lights and started to worry about my restaurant choice. At one point I even asked a staff the unthinkable: “Do you bring out the food or is there a menu?”
Although the dining staff certainly wasn’t gunning for any service awards, I was relieved to find that there was, in fact, some food for me — and it was excellent. I enjoyed the rendang (meat curry) and the soto padang (spicy beef soup), though it was the restaurant’s endless variety of chicken that really lived on in my the memory.
From the ayam balado (sauteed in red chilies) to the ayam ijo (sauteed with green chilli peppers),ayam panggang manis (grilled and coated in a sweet coconut cream mixture) and the ayam kremes(a particularly popular version of deep-fried ayam goreng, loaded with savory crumbs and a spicy-sweet soy sauce dip), Pagi Sore offers the bird at its best.
Still, be sure to steer away from any fancy-sounding drink that your waiter may offer you, especially the Monalisa or Grape Kiss. As history has surely taught you, nothing good can ever come of them.
Instead, stick to anything cooked in the phenomenal sambel ijo, or just order an entire plate of the spicy green chili sauce — no one will crave dessert after a flavor blast like that. Or keep it light with fresh juices and fruits, and ask the waiter to dial down on the sugar.
Once you get your bill, you’ll see this place for what it really is: a new kid on the block, but an honest one at that. Honest in its cooking and its decency.
Jl. Cipete Raya 2 No. 1