I was in Jakarta for a brief one-night trip recently. There I met up with Kevin, Ganesh and Joel. That evening after we did what we had to do, we went out looking for makan. Kevin whipped out his mobile phone and Waze-guided the taxi driver to a restaurant he had found in the Internet.
The place went by the name Lara Djong Grang. It's location was on Jalan Teuku Cik Ditiro No.4, Menteng in central Jakarta. Both the restaurant and the road were mouthfuls in name. Outside the restaurant, it was a dark and mysterious. The place was surrounded by big trees and lighted statues of mythical creatures.
Inside, we were awed. The place was unreal. It was like we had walked into in an ancient civilisation - kind of an Indiana Jones sort of place. The interior was not much brighter than outside. The main dining hall was presided by 2 big and imposing figures of some legendary gods. The place made clever use of spot lights, candles and oil lamps to create a truly mystical ambiance.
They had a big collection of beautiful artefacts. I do not if they were all Indonesian in origin.
We were seated in the main dining hall. The table was big. We were very comfortable and looked forward to a truly authentic Indonesian meal.
Besides the main dining halls, there were smaller dining areas and some private rooms - all of them with similar dim and esoteric settings.
Kevin did the honour, ordering all the dishes. I think he did hell of a job, considering that even though Indonesian and Malaysian dishes have a lot in common, most of the dishes listed in the menu were new to us. And I honestly cannot remember everything we ate.
The drinks came first. Kevin had this coconut juice that tasted rather strange. I had a sip and a piece of the flesh. It was not like the ordinary coconut at all. It is hard to describe the flavour. The flesh was a little powdery. To me, it tasted somewhat like a decaying fruit. I didn't like it.
Mine was an equally strange drink. It came in a bowl. The waitress told us this could be also a dessert. It was a potpourri of strange things. The black stuff was a kind of cincau. The green thing was lime and mint jelly. The white blot was coconut flesh. Below these were small bits of a lot of other stuffs. I had no idea what they were. I think I tasted sago and nutmeg. The flavour of the whole thing was equally mixed. It was sweet, sour, and slightly bitter - all in one. With lots of ice on the bowl, it was actually a very refreshing drink. I liked it. I only wish I remember the name.
This other dessert drink was much like our ABC (air batu camper). I remember this avocado ABC on a previous visit to Jakarta.
The second started was these "udang swarloka" - deep fried prawn balls. Another interesting and creditable small-bite to tease the palate.
This was a serious sambal dish with roasted brinjal. The amount of fiery hot chilli in it was intimidating. I found the flavour too strong and spicy.
The salad was not unlike our rojak. It was the "karedok sunda" - a Javanese dish of various vegetables in a peanut sauce. It had kangkung, cucumber, bean sprouts, cabbage, long beans, basil - all the rojak stuffs. It was delicious.
From the banana wrapping, I thought this was the otak otak. Far from it. It was a mixture of soft tofu and minced meat, cooked in a creamy sauce. It was delicious. I thought the dish was very innovative.
The grilled "gurame" fish was also very nice. The meat was soft and tender. The marinade was light but distinct. This was the first time I tasted a gourami. I always thought the gourami was an aquarium fish. I didn't know they eat them.
Indonesia is famed for its gado gado. I guess this one here could not be any more authentic. The ingredients were the same as the gado gado we have in Malaysia - tofu, egg, tempe (fermented soy beans), cucumber, sengkuang, etc. But the sauce was not quite. They do use a peanut sauce, but it was different. The sauce in our gado gado is similar to our Indian pasembur rojak. In Jakarta, I guess they do not have pasembur. Perhaps I am biased or I am used to our pasembur. I actually prefer our version.
I have never had so many varieties of satay before. This satay boat we ordered had 6 different types. There was beef satay, mutton satay, beef tongue satay, chicken on sugar-cane satay, fish satay and squid satay. Their preparation of satay was not quite the same as ours. They do not use the same marinade. And they do not offer the same peanut sauce. In stead, they provided different types of sambal and chilli pastes. We had a stick of each. They were delicious.
We had 2 soups. The first was the soto ayam. It was a milky soup with chicken, potato and I don't remember what else. It was slightly spicy but not fantastic.
Somewhat more fantastic was this soto bentut goreng - an oxtail soup. The meat (oxtail) was fried and served separately. The soup came in a small pot. The meat was tough and dry but the soup was superb. Perhaps we were supposed to immerse the meat into the soup. We did not.
We ate all these dishes with 2 different types of rice. This brown rice was quite fragrant and nice.
The yellow rice was the same as our nasi kunyit. It was glutinous rice (pulut) cooked in turmeric (kunyit). Of the two, I preferred the brown.
Towards the end of our meal, I noticed this side dish, compliments of the house. I thought it was a keropok (prawn/fish cracker) and did not pay too much attention to it. On closer look, I realised it was not keropok. It tasted more like fried fish maw. We asked the waitress and she told us it was "kulit sapi" - cow skin. Effectively we were eating leather. I joked that it definitely tasted better than my shoe. It certainly was the first and most delicious cow skin I ever had.
We hardly had room for dessert. But we wanted to sample some Indonesian after dinner sweets. We ordered two to share. The first was very much like our cendol. It was pandan flavoured green strips in suntan (coconut milk). It did not taste good. I had a spoon and it was enough.
More awful was these 2 pieces of green stuffs in a brown sauce. We stared at them for awhile wondering what on earth they were. The taste was worse than it looked. It was like a sponge cake in a mixture of gula melaka and milk. I still shudder at the thought of the taste.
I couldn't believe we ate so much that night. Our big table was to the brink.
Notwithstanding the desserts, it was a good and unique Indonesian experience. I guess we had some true authentic Indonesian dishes. The similarities between Indonesian and Malaysian cuisines are many. Yet they are so different. By any standard, Lara Djong Grang was a fabulous restaurant. It had the exotic ambiance and the genuine Indonesian food to match. We couldn't ask for more in Jakarta.