Jakarta’s Food Scene is on the Rise

A strong metric for charting regional capitals is by the sophistication of their food scenes. Ron Gluckman loosens his belt and makes a case for the heretofore underrated Indonesian metropolis. Photographed by Charles Dharapak

Apr 9, 2020

“You have to try this!” says chef Ragil Imam Wibowo, popping in from his kitchen, bearing a tray of hors d’oeuvres—and a long tail planted in a glass of what resembles blood-red soil. It turns out to be eel, smoked and served with tangy red sauce, a spicy balado

Looking like traditional Indonesian sambal, balado is a fiery paste of ground chili, fried with spices, garlic, shallots, tomato and lime juice in coconut or palm oil. Ragil’s version is aromatic, home-smoked, zesty. And like everything he plates at Nusa Indonesian Gastronomy—in the South Jakarta area of Kemang, known for hip shops—it’s unquestionably authentic. 

“Indonesian food is really underrated,” Ragil, who started cooking at age eight, says, “and the special foods of the regions have not really been explored.” Nusa is short for nusantara, or archipelago, and his goal is to promote all the unique eats across the islands. An extraordinary culinary explorer, he scours Indonesia for rare recipes and ingredients, and reenacts them here, detailing the unique spices and preparation methods. 

Balado is typical of Minang cuisine, from West Sumatra, where the eel was sourced. “It’s rice-field smoked,” he says gleefully. “No other region does it this way.” Of course, Ragil doesn’t have a paddy out back, but in his kitchen he smokes his sustainably fished eel with rice stalks and leaves and the same herbs the Minang use to impart the same flavor. 

After a delightful tasting meal (diners chose from set menus of three, five, seven or nine courses) that transports us from this century-old colonial mansion whose airy, natural-wood interiors were designed by his architect wife, all the way across Indonesia, Ragil guides us into his kitchen. It looks more like a laboratory filled with jars and beakers of exotic ingredients, in various stages of mixing, marinating or aging. Much of the equipment is custom-made, like a hybrid stove that allows him to fry, steam or wood-cook. On top are slots fitting the traditional rice cookers that are used on different islands. So, his nasi jagung (yellow corn rice) is spooned from a deep metal vessel exactly like one used by villagers in Sumatra or Malang. All the effort yields not only an array of dishes unique in the city but also an education in the various cuisines of this nation of 17,000 islands and its many varied cooking styles. 

Eating at Nusa is representative of my own culinary journey—exploring the top new restaurants in Jakarta today, a city known for its fantastic street food, but not, as of yet, fine dining. After spending a lot more time in the Indonesian capital recently, my wife having taken a job there, I’ve noticed two things: the culinary culture is increasingly diverse, delicious and laudable; and everyone in it laments how underrated it is. “Jakarta is getting much better,” says Jean Pittion, former manager of Hakkasan, whose opening last year set a new bar for restaurants. Like many, he compares the dining scene to Bangkok. “But like Bangkok 10 or 15 years ago, before food really took off. I think Jakarta can do that, too.”

“People think Jakarta is boring,” says Christian Rijanto, the founding partner of Ismaya Group, a restaurant company with 80 outlets in Jakarta. “We want to prove that F&B can be as good here as anywhere in the world.” Ismaya opened 30 eateries last year, and Rijanto says the group is on pace to double that number in 2020, and head overseas.

Tuna tataki with spicy- tomato-and-onion mousse at Txoko.

Much of that growth is mid-range, targeted at the rising middle class, but Ismaya also splashed out in October with Gunpowder: modern Indian fine dining on the ground floor of Plaza Indonesia. With its smoking cocktails and low lighting, Gunpowder looks like a jazz club, but the flavors are explosive, hence its name, which is slang for podi, the fiery blend of powdered spices found on tables in South India. Gunpowder serves modern Indian fare from chef Manjunath Mural, famed for claiming the first Michelin star given to an Indian restaurant in Southeast Asia, for his Song of India in Singapore.

Ismaya is also known for a variety of casual restaurants styled like Social House, a do-it-all local institution that was originally inside Harvey Nichols department store and was revamped and reopened in December. The menu remains fusion and comfort food, with plenty of pasta, salads and an enormous wine selection—more than 150 labels. Harvey Nichols shut, yet diners had continued to flock to the restaurant. And so, Aldo Volpi, an Italian who is group executive chef, was careful not to tinker too much with Social House 2.0, keeping classics, like the rich crispy pork belly carbonara. “But we wanted to upgrade the quality, to match the new design.” Pizzas now bake in a wood oven—the quattro formaggi is cheesy bliss—and a fancier chef’s table is geared to finer dining. There’s also a new VIP area for wine-tasting parties and a huge bar. “In Jakarta these days,” he says, “you need to keep up.”

The next step in the evolution of a burgeoning fine-dining scene: showpiece restaurants centered on chefs rather than hotels or malls. It’s a progression made in all Asian food capitals, as chefs move out of hotel kitchens to open their own spaces with more independence. Jakarta hasn’t completed the great leap food-ward yet, but there are promising examples.

One new place getting justifiably ample buzz is Txoko, in Senopati. Chef Oskar Urzelai has worked in Jakarta for a decade, having most recently sold out of Spanish restaurant Plan B to go it alone with an ambitious showcase of authentic Basque food. Txoko means “cozy corner,” and Urzelai explains that he wanted to create a place where people would gather to eat, gossip and drink wine—just like in his native land.

Set in a two-story building, upstairs is open-air, with breezy views over a park. Painted white with blue highlights, it has a lively Basque vibe. The food is wholesome, simply presented, like platters of whole roasted vegetables. “Grilled prawns” come in thin, raw slices that are torched right at the table. There is a wide selection of tapas and a great wine list. “People come for breakfast or lunch, stay a few hours,” Oskar says proudly, “then come back for dinner.”

The newest hotspot is Animale, the Jakarta debut for native chef Andri Dionysius, who left Indonesia in 2000 to study in the U.S., and didn’t return until 2014—to open the Jakarta branch of celebrity chef Akira Back’s Japanese restaurant and AB Steak in the same building. When an Italian place closed on the top floor, the owner asked Andri to take over.

“I told him I couldn’t do classical food. I wanted to do something fun.” The resulting Animale is modern Mediterranean. “I didn’t want to be pigeonholed into any cuisine,” he tells me. “I said, ‘let’s go crazy!’” He did with the design, odd cutouts in walls and the ceiling lending a science-fiction look. But there is a method to the madness. He took out one wall to provide breezes, and views in a section with a Mediterranean seafood feel. The entrance is packed with drying racks—he ages everything, not just the meat, but also the fish. And there’s a big pizza oven right in the dining room, next to the open kitchen.

The food is fantastic. “My target is Indonesians, and they really don’t know what is Spanish or Italian. I give them the flavors of the Mediterranean.” That includes an enormous selection of pastas, all handmade on the spot. Waiters take samples in a giant display box to tables. “Nobody really knows all the different pastas here,” he says. “It’s still early for Jakarta. It’s all about education, and taking it up a step.”

Also leading the charge of the current food revolution here is Hakkasan, which in the year since it opened has helped make Alila Hotel into one of Jakarta’s hottest food destinations. On the ground floor is Vong Kitchen, from Jean- Georges Vongerichten. The chic French-tinged New York-style grill has artful lighting, and signature Jean-Georges dishes. But it may be outshined by Hakkasan, reached by a special elevator.

A global sensation of haute Cantonese, Hakkasan first opened in London in 2001, founded by Alan Yau, renowned for the Wagamama Japanese chain. In two decades, it’s expanded to a dozen cities. Occupying the top floor of a 25-story tower with expansive views over the business district, it makes a strong case for marking Jakarta on fly-in foodie maps. More so, with the opening this year of its rooftop, a sweeping collection of cabanas, tables with dazzling views, and a pair of dance areas. The décor is dark, but everything is superbly lit, with perfectly placed blue floor and ceiling lights, and romantic lanterns out on the terrace.

Though the restaurant has 120 wine labels, the main attraction is its inventive reworking of Cantonese fare. Most start with dim sum. We order a sampler; it’s supercharged Hakkasan-style, adding truffle to the har gao, substituting scallops for shrimp in the shiu mai, heartening a water- chestnut-and-celery dumpling with sea bass. They reinvent classic Peking duck as a crunchy salad featuring a rich XO sauce. Purists may bristle at the unorthodox twists on Cantonese cuisine, or the departures from it such as the Mongolian-style lamb chop. But even as former longtime residents of Hong Kong, my wife and I relished the knockout flavors in every dish, including the showpiece Australian Black Angus tomahawk in decadent truffle sauce.

Gold-encrusted har gao and scallop shiu mai are Hakkasan hits.

Downstairs, Vong Kitchen seems almost subdued, a word rarely used when discussing any restaurant in the Jean-Georges empire. Yet Vong aims to be more casual, says his son, Cédric, who oversaw the project. The design is fashioned after a New York-style grill, and the circular Le Burger adds a bar and counter service popular with the lunchtime workers, to broaden the base.

At Vong, it’s all about casual elegance, with an open kitchen, and a menu abounding with Jean-Georges classics like rice cracker with locally sourced tuna, and egg caviar with creamy vodka sauce for starters. Then, there is the heavenly truffle pizza, with three dreamy cheeses that could be the mainstay of any meal. Save your appetite for treats like Tasmanian trout in tomato ratatouille and a crispy lamb shank with a purple potato puree and tempura mushrooms.

One thing that isn’t on the menu here is Indonesian food, but Cédric, whose wife is from Bali, is a huge fan. So much so that last year, he opened Indonesian-French restaurant Wayan in New York, to great acclaim. “People don’t know enough about Indonesian food. People like the pastes and satay, but there is so much food and flavor everywhere,” he says. “I really think people haven’t been exposed to the diversity of Indonesian cuisine. They think it’s like Thai food, but that’s because it really hasn’t received much attention. That’s one reason we opened Wayan.” Would he like to open his own take on local cuisine in Indonesia? “I’d love to,” he says. “There is so much potential there. The food is fantastic.” While international recognition for the fare is his mission for now, perhaps a hint lies in the restaurant’s name: Wayan means “first-born” in Balinese.

A lack of awareness about Indonesian cuisine is bemoaned everywhere in Jakarta. Ragil recounts how when he attended culinary school, he only learned French and other Western types: “There is no culinary school for Indonesian cooking here.” Many others talk of the huge long-term investment Thailand made to promote its cuisine globally, and to draw tourists, who are in shorter supply in Indonesia. “Nothing is done here,” a chef laments.

Instead, chefs talk about learning by exposure, and several shower praise on two of my favorite eating institutions, Lara Djonggrang and Tugu Kunstkring Paleis. Both are in Menteng, which was a residential area under the Dutch that today retains its parks, and colonial buildings that now house diplomats, as well as a pair of must-visit fine dining options in Jakarta.

Views of Jakarta from Animale.

Tugu Kunstkring Paleis actually served as a Fine Arts Center a century ago, exhibiting works by van Gogh, Picasso and Gauguin. It still hosts exhibitions, along with shops selling local crafts. The main dining room is a throwback, with antique chairs, frilly settings and massive old paintings, appealing to groups and tourists. The menu abounds with classic dishes, extending to the colonial period with Dutch-style rissoles, bitterballen and erwtensoep (soup with vegetables, sausage and chicken). There is also the lounge Suzi Wong, which situates you in roaring old Shanghai, with its vintage Chinese lanterns and tables.

Lara Djonggrang is more centered on Indonesian food and culture, menus bearing the motto, “The Art, Soul and Romance of Indonesia,” offering delicacies of the entire country, and boasting that rendang is the world’s most delicious food. No argument here, and in my humble opinion Lara Djonggrang may lay claim to the best rendang in Jakarta. As at Tugu, the food is only part of the appeal, as the building is filled with Indonesian art, antiques and pottery in an amazing series of private rooms set around interior ponds and gardens.

Perhaps no restaurant of the new guard is as remarkable as Daun Muda Soulfood by chef Andrea Peresthu, who returned to Jakarta from more than a dozen years in Europe, to open a series of mostly Mediterranean restaurants. Greenery-covered Duan, though, is a complete departure, as Andrea takes a modern spin on dishes from his youth in Palembang, Manado and the east coast of Sumatra. The dishes are among the most exotic you can find in Jakarta, with unusual vegetables, forest products and complete use of animal parts.

The menu can be challenging: just drawings of fish, beef, chicken with arrows pointing like dissection charts from different parts to short descriptions of how they are prepared. We asked for recommendations, and tucked into ijo royo royo, free-range chicken, smoked and tangy, served with the bone and lathered with chili. The rusip duan muda was a beautiful plate of vegetables, featuring wing beans, cucumber and forest leaves, flavored with fermented raw fish.

Such spicy and unique dishes not only satisfy the stomach, and senses, but also up the ante in Jakarta. “When I came here, there were so few choices outside hotels, only Italian and French,” says Oskar Urzelai of the food scene a decade ago. “Now, there is so much: Japanese, Spanish, Mexican, and great Indonesian. People are trying new things, exploring. Jakarta is really growing in gastronomy.” I’d have to admit the same thing about my waistline.

WHERE TO EAT IN JAKARTA

Animale Modern

Mediterranean-esque marvels like salmon kebabs with red- onion slaw and barley risotto; pork tomahawk with smoked paprika, artichoke and champignon sauce; and harissa-glazed tiger prawns, with tzatziki and crumbled feta. Get the Oops Cheesetart (camembert and gorgonzola). animalejakarta.com; dinner for two Rp550,000.

Daun Muda Soulfood

Some of the most unusual food in Jakarta. Start with cumi bakar rica (spicy grilled squid covered in rica-rica sambal) then proceed to mains like kuah asam pedah (zesty Sumatra fish stew) or fresh seafood from the iced display. daunmudajakarta.com; dinner for two Rp550,000.

Gunpowder

Modern Indian with a tantalizing twist. Start with tacos on Punjabi tortilla, and samosas stuffed with minced Wagyu and mashed potatoes, served with sour plum chutney. Then, relish the mouth-watering ribs (braised baby back in spicy Goan curry or smoky beef short ribs). ismaya.com; dinner for two Rp600,000.

Tugu Kunstkring Paleis

This century-old former arts center is kitted out with antiques, and a menu to match, filled with old faves like Indonesische biefstuk van mevrouw, and bruinebonen soep met ossestaart. Cocktails mandatory before or after at the swinging Shanghai-style Suzie Wong Lounge; try My Sweetheart Wong Mee-Ling or The First Time I Kissed Suzie. tuguhotels.com; dinner for two Rp400,000.

Vong Kitchen

This French-inflected New York-style grill from Jean-Georges Vongerichten features classic starters like egg caviar with creamy vodka sauce, and the cheese-rich truffle pizza. Main-course highlights: tasty Tasmanian trout in tomato ratatouille, and a gorgeous lamb shank with a purple potato puree and tempura mushrooms. alilahotels.com/scbd/vong-kitchen; dinner for two Rp950,000.

Hakkasan Jakarta

The dim sum is a must—choose from samplers of the Cantonese treats, then mains like stir-fried black-pepper rib eye with merlot, or steamed grouper with kaffir sambal sauce. hakkasan.com/jakarta; dinner for two Rp1,500,000.

Lara Djonggrang

Filled with art and antiques, this museum of a restaurant has a menu packed with satays and skewers like gimbal tahu gapit (fried tofu with chicken and shrimp), and delicacies like ikan cakalang garo rica (tuna pan-fried in tangy North Sulawesi 12-spice marinade) and the heavenly Rendang Padang. tuguhotels.com; dinner for two Rp350,000.

Nusa Gastronomy

Chef Ragil’s adventurous tasting menus showcase rare recipes from around the archipelago. nusagastronomy.com; set menus from Rp350,000 for three courses to Rp950,000 for nine courses.

Social House

Menu includes all-day egg dishes and sushi-roll starters, plus Asian fusion, with twists on local favorite beef rendang (subbing in brazed U.S. beef short ribs) and crispy pork- belly carbonara. ismaya.com; meal for two Rp400,000.

Txoko Boisterous

Basque eatery with great seafood, tapas and homemade bread. Start with grilled octopus or Granma’s Bosque seafood soup, then move to mains like lamb and sweet potato or daily grilled fish, lathered in olive oil and presented over baked potatoes. fb.com/txokojakarta; dinner for two Rp550,000.

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