Saturday, December 27, 2008

Java Kitchen on Christmas Day

The other day I had one of my nicest meals in Singapore. Now my foodie-adventures tend towards exploring other cultures and cuisines. Seldom do I encounter anything that reminds me of home. But that's how I ended up feeling after this meal at an Indonesian restaurant, of all things! A tiny joint it was, hidden away in Lucky Plaza - a sleazy mall and in my opinion Orchard Road's leading eyesore. (It is chiefly notorious for cheap clothes, cheap perfumes, cheap jewellery, tacky souvenirs, and grey-market electronic goods hucksters.) So what was I doing there looking for interesting eateries, on Christmas day, lunchtime? Go figure.

It started with an impromptu decision we took, self and fellow research-scholar Xing Li. We had no prior plans for Christmas lunch, and Orchard seemed as good a place as any. Which was nice in a way, because we caught the tail end of the Christmas parade. There was one float made up like a boat, inside which were a bunch of people dressed in white and blowing wriggly trumpets. I could't make out what it was meant to depict, Noah's ark or Joshua and the walls of Jericho. Some time later, Xing Li drew my attention to what she called "Muslim Santa Clauses". I explained they were meant to be the Three Wise Men of the East, but it didn't register with her. Maybe she hadn't heard the story.

Shortly thereafter, I spotted this signboard for Indonesian food hanging down from a portico, and pointed it out to Xing Li. We had already tentatively decided on Western food at a nice place like Food Republic. Getting there was a problem, because the parade was still on and we needed to cross the road. And we were uncomfortably hungry by then. So when we saw this interesting alternative, we both jumped at it.

I was surprised to find there was much, much more to Lucky Plaza than I had earlier thought. Its tourist-trap outlets were situated mostly on the first two floors. The rest contained a vast number of shops catering to immigrants specifically from ASEAN countries. Indonesian and Filipino departmental stores, maidservant and other employment agencies, parcel services, money remittance centres, even agencies where you could pay for motorcycles delivered to your family back home. Eateries also, in wide variety and profusion. I intend to go back there and try out Filipino fast-food some day.

According to this review posted on its blog, Java Kitchen opened in Jakarta about fifteen years ago. Today it comprises a large chain with three outlets in Singapore, at Tajong Katong, Vivocity, and here at Lucky Plaza. It specialises in Javanese home cooking, reputedly more nutritious than other Indonesian cuisines. I learnt all this much later, while doing the last bits of research for the blogpost. Indeed, I wrote much of this piece before I read this review. And it is nice to see how well our experience tallied with what the proprietor had set out to achieve.

The Lucky Plaza outlet is situated at Level 3, away from the main lobby and surprisingly quiet and homey. The decor is clean and unpretentious to the point of severity - grey tiled floor, white walls decorated with posters and bunches of artifical flowers, simple wooden furniture painted dark brown and, for good measure, plain white porcelain tableware. At one corner lies the cashier's counter, flanked by glass-fronted cabinets containing trays of prepared food.

I found the staff pleasantly informal. They were happy to supply details of what each set meal, and did not show any discomfort as we dawdled over the menu. Neither did they object to my incessant photography, very rare in Singapore!

The bill of fare tends towards home-style cooking, and mostly full meals at that - no Satay and other street-food. Possibly this is because it caters mainly to immigrant workers staving off homesickness through the stomach. And a good thing too. It ensures the cooking is authentic, Just The Way Mother Made It.

Authentic or not, it was delightful. Xing Li opted for Rawon, a Javanese beef and black-nut soup. I wanted to order it myself; it was drizzly and overcast outside - but deferred to her choice. So instead I went in for Nasi Rames, a set-meal comprising white rice, Beef or Chicken Rendang (I asked for beef), Balinese Egg, and "traditional vegetables". The proportions didn't look like much, but they filled our stomachs nicely. Both were priced at six Dollars, very reasonable for the amount (and quality) of food it got us. We both ordered avocado juice to go with our meal - comparatively expensive at $4, but what the hell.

My order arrived first. Very pretty it was too, a square of banana-leaf covering the plate, with the various preparations heaped on it. There was a helping of white rice at the centre, surrounded by the Rendang; the Balinese Egg; some thinly shredded yellow veg (turned out to be pumpkin); some greyish veg I recognised as unripe jackfruit; peanut; and a slice of cucumber topped by the most ferocious Sambal I've yet encountered. Xing Li's Rawon was considerably less prepossessing. A large bowl of dark brown soup flecked with lighter brown in parts, still boiling away when they served it. Next to it was a plate with a helping of rice; two crackers; half a salted egg; and some of that incendiary Sambal.

Having grown up in an enchor-worshipping household, I inevitably began with the jackfruit. It was quite unlike the way we Bengalis prepare it - boiled with virtually no spices and just a hint of garlic. This allowed the natural flavours to come forth, and boy, was it good! It was made just right, neither undercooked nor mushy, and retained the moist Umami flavour of unripe jackfruit. This flavour is simple and direct, and disappears if overcooked. So was the pumpkin just right - juicy, crisp, and slightly sweet. I think what made them truly special were the quality and freshness of the vegetables used. I cannot imagine departmental-store veggies tasting anywhere near as nice.

They even put the Rendang in shade. Which is pretty remarkable because (a) I'm a diehard carnivore; (b) as FoodScapes regulars know, Rendang is one of my favourite meat dishes; and (c) the stuff they served was pretty decent its own right. It was slightly different from the others I have encountered (and written about). It was lot less oily, and spiced a little stronger. The taste of coconut was noticeably subdued, which allowed greater space to the meaty flavours. The meat itself was of good quality, tender and not very fibrous.

The Balinese Egg was very similar to the Dimer Jhol we get back home - whole boiled egg first lightly fried and then cooked in a thick gravy of tomato and onion-paste. It slightly different, no doubt owing to the spices used, but still reminded me of home. An unexpected and very pleasant surprise! it was good too, lightly spiced, neither oily nor over-fried.

Xing Li's soup tasted much better than it looked. The meat was just boiled, not browned, and yet it did not have that funny smell one gets from boiled meat (we Bengalis call it "botka", can't translate). It was also tender and of excellent quality. Minimal amounts of lemongrass and galangal could be discerned.

The avocado juice was a visual turn-off - sizeable tumblers of a green liquid shot through with brown chocolate syrup. To our surprise, the two flavours blended well (or at least much better than they looked!). The juice was very thick, thicker than most milkshakes, and barely sippable through a straw. Alone, it would have come close to filling our stomachs. In conjunction with the amounts of food we ate, it stuffed us something something cruel!

Honestly, beyond perhaps a limited range of dishes, and especially of snacks and light eats, I cannot think of a single downside to our experience. Comfortable atmosphere, friendly staff, quick service, excellent cooking, the freshest raw materials, very reasonable price, what more could one ask? As a matter of fact, it went more than that. It reminded me of home. And not just because of the unripe jackfruit and the egg curry. The entire meal, especially the vegetables, was pervaded through with the delicacy and sensitivity one usually associates with home cooking. A truly memorable, heartwarming (not heartburning) experience, somehow fitting that it occurred on Christmas day.


Megan said...

It's been a year since I left, but I still miss Singapore terribly, even the seedy Lucky Plaza.
You might be interested to know that the "avocado juice" that you had at Java kitchen would be called an avocado shake in the US and is extremely popular on the west coast of the country. It came here via Filipino and Vietnamese immigrants. The addition of chocolate syrup, I believe, began in the Phillipines and spread to Indonesia. In Vietnam the standard is still avocado and condensed milk. Delicious either way. I'm actually amazed that Singaporeans don't eat more avocado, since they're surrounded by avocado producing countries and the avocado is such a delicious, versatile fruit.

Cahyadi said...

Dear Abhik,

Thanks for your generous review.
We are glad to hear that what we set out to achieve with our food is inline with what you have experienced in our restaurant.

We hope that we can continue to deliver the same (or even better) quality and experience to you in the future. Thus, your continuous support and feedback is of paramount importance to us.

Thank you once again for this rather detailed, analytical and yet delightful review on our restaurant.

Best wishes,
for Java Kitchen

Gatot Soemartono said...

As a Javanese myself, I must admit reading Abhik's dinner experience at Java Kitchen, written in detailed and vivid expressions, is really enjoyable. Thanks for sharing this with us!