It’s no exaggeration to say that the choice and quality of international cuisin e on offer in Jakarta has never been better; and newcomers arrive all the time. Here, in no particular order, are three relatively recent restaurants worthy of the Jakarta foodie set’s attention, with quality cuisine and pioneering menus matched by ambience and style.
In the case of Union, whose rise has been striking, you are liable to break into a knowing giggle — “You mean Onion?” — which only underlines how quickly you can become wedded to a place, with its inside jokes and living errata.
Union was launched in July, just when the city seemed on the brink of buckling under an onslaught of architecturally upscale, though not always culinarily uplifting, social nexuses of fashionistas and lifestyle-seekers. But while Union has the “Parisian steakhouse meets classic New York tavern” look down almost to a fault, this brasserie, bakery and bar is not just about getting its wine selection and cocktails right. It is just as keenly focused on the food — and rightly so — as its chef, 26-year-old Adhika Maxi, cooks up a storm in the kitchen and still finds time to greet customers at their tables with the conscientiousness and energy of a young David Chang.
In the opening month at least, certain do-or-die dishes, such as the overdressed Caesar salad and inconsistent roast chicken, might not have started a city-center stampede, but there were so many other elements that worked magically from the get-go: the light-as-air, ultra-smooth homemade butter; the equally ethereal yet butter-loaded mashed potatoes worthy of Joel Robuchon; and the homemade bangers as persuasive as a trip to Toulouse.
In this sense, Maxi, easily one of the most talented chefs working in this city today, is a true disciple of Gordon Ramsay — in whose kitchen he once labored — for he shuns trendy, contrived food in favor of the pleasure of simple, satisfying fare (with just the occasional touch of glam). In the case of the Bourbon pork ribs and the Momofuku-inspired pork bao — the meat brined then slow-roasted for six hours at a low temperature — you don’t just eat them. You give yourself over to them.
At its most basic, Union hews closely to gastro-pub “comfort food,” categorized — at least in its birthland, the United Kingdom — as bar food, but with a chef too good to be relegated to any sort of adjunct status. Because this is Jakarta, the menu takes care to include some concessions to local taste (oxtail soup and nasi goreng), as well as a smattering of mod-Asian innovations (mie ayam with foie gras, the more generic Thai beef salad), though these additions are at a blessed minimum.
Brunch offerings are terse yet solid in execution. The eggs Benedict, for instance, is vivid and full-flavored; the eggs perfectly poached, the Hollandaise warm, creamy, unbroken, paired with smoked salmon and a biscuit. Fried chicken with truffle perkedel is emblematic of the chef’s other love: not merely mixing Asian ingredients and Western techniques, but updating, and having fun with, Indonesian cuisine.
At one point during its teething period, Union’s steaks might have suffered from bouts of inconsistency, but even from the very beginning, it has been hard to fault Maxi’s pork — a meat he clearly knows and loves (and passionately defends, demographics aside, as a human right).
If you’re not convinced, go back to those baos: Glistening, lacquered slices of pork peeking out from underneath those steamed doughy pillows. It takes a certain chutzpah, in an age of the herbivore, the hybrid and the health-conscious, to offer a short, meat-driven, diet-be-damned menu and to then say, “Take it or leave it.”
Perhaps it is precisely in this light that the restaurant’s sop buntut and otak-otak efforts to appease the native crowd often feel trite and unnecessary. Indeed, this is the first time the city has seen genuine stirrings of a modern chef culture: a kitchen built almost entirely around the loves and trials of its chef in chief. Union’s hard-working chefs and the highly visionary team behind them — the same team that gave us Loewy — wear the courage of their conviction.
Plaza Senayan, Level 1
Jl. Asia Afrika No. 8, South Jakarta
Tel. 021 5790 5861/3
Monolog Quality Coffee Co.
Speaking of brunches and other things nice, further conviction casts its nurturing shade over the all-day brunch offerings at Monolog Quality Coffee Co., where you can get bright food at breezy prices in a bonny, laid-back setting.
Substitutes aside, you can’t go wrong with a Rp 68,000 ($7.70) deal that includes two eggs, beef “bockwurst” and beef “ham” served with a side of garlic fried potatoes, sauteed mushrooms and toast, or a choice, both robust and health-giving, between a spinach frittata or veggie soup — in other words, a light but full-bodied minestrone, my personal favorite — or an eggs Benedict of perfect, homey runniness slathered with a capsicum Hollandaise that hits all the right buttons.
Those who prefer brunch of a less breakfast-y nature would do equally well with the surprisingly agile Vietnamese chicken banh mi or the decidedly more rustic “country” barbecue beef brisket served with mashed potatoes. The yogurt blends, too, are not to be missed: a more precious commodity than ever, in the age of ugly smoothies and bad juices. Certain combinations, such as the peach and passionfruit, offer quiet grace.
Much of Monolog’s rightness comes from the space, which comfortably lies between a New York-industrial, Melbourne-neighborhood brunch spot and an all-day watering hole for city hipsters as much in the thrall of their MacBooks as of their hazelnut choco Nutella milkshakes. Which is to say, plenty of white-washed brick walls, low wooden tables, gray-tweed stubby 50s lounge chairs, wall-to-wall parquet flooring and the requisite white-tiled coffee bar cranking out solid, professional barista-handled premium coffee, multi-colored macaroons and plump pastries.
Nothing, however, beats the sheer heart that emanates from the place. You watch, with a smile on your face, as the restaurant’s young owners (also of Immigrant and Rustique) greet you, take your order and talk about their various tarts of the day. They all have easy smiles and are light on their feet. Blink, and a pear tart appears on your table. And rest assured, it is delicieux.
Monolog Quality Coffee Co.
Plaza Senayan, Palm Gate Entrance
Jl. Asia Afrika No. 8, South Jakarta
This is not to say that delicieux will always be the same to you and me, or that all collective memories — a huge ingredient for food nationalism — are created equal. Some eats, like bagels, travel across borders or are adopted voluntarily even by those who haven’t really tasted them. Whatever the case may be, it doesn’t change the fact that Bagel Bagel is the most delightful thing that has come Jakarta’s way for a while; barely big enough to contain you and me when it first opened, now the tiny neighborhood joint — the labor of love of one group of friends — is doing such a brisk trade it has no other option but to expand.
There are many kinds of bagels in this world, and God knows the differences between them are as elastic as the term itself. But what this place does — and does exceedingly well — is that institution within an institution otherwise known as the New York-style bagel. As in, an especially puffy, ring-shaped yeasted dough, with a moist crust, the result of having been salted and malted and boiled in water before being baked in the oven. Halfway around the world from the heart of bagel land, it’s a little too good to be true, to say nothing of the superb — and ultra-friendly — home delivery service.
For optimum mood lift, order the lox, lush with cream cheese and capers (best had with a poppy seed or sesame seed-studded bagel) or the roast turkey with cranberry sauce. There are plain and wheat versions of every bagel, of which I heartily recommend the latter.
Other popular choices, such as the cinnamon raisin or the more international spicy Thai chicken, fall a trifle short of their own standards, though certainly not for lack of confidence. For my own part, I can’t remember being this giddy — in the early flush of my first lox bagel — for a long time. Nothing glowering or glamorous here, just cheery, good grub — which, while not exactly an alien notion in the Big Durian, we all know does not often come by way of the Big Apple.
Jl. Benda Raya No. 10
Kemang, South Jakarta
Tel. 021 7827218
Laksmi Pamuntjak is a poet and writer based in Jakarta. She publishes the “Jakarta Good Food Guide,” an annually updated new take on food writing, and cofounded Aksara, a bilingual bookstore in Jakarta.