A couple of nights ago, Wells and I journeyed to San Francisco to meet with friends from Chowhound.com. We made quite a few new discoveries and had a splendid time at Java, an Indonesian restaurant.
On our way to Saturday's Chowhound gathering, Wells and I saw and were unimpressed by the facade of Java (Geary Blvd.), an undistinguished-looking streetfront restaurant. But we've long since learned simple outsides often conceal extraordinary food, and we knew organizer Han Lukito had done his homework, so our expectations were high, though neither of us knew anything Indonesian cuisine. We were willing to put ourselves in his hands.
Eleven SF Bay Area chowhounds made it to dinner, including Han and his wife Ika, Melanie Wong, Limster ("the famous," Melanie called him), Mark and Lisa Braunstein, Pia Ramos, Elise, Ruth Laffler and we two. The decision was made to let Han order for us, as only he knew much about the cuisine, and though it felt like we'd requested the entire menu, dividing them among a (near) dozen hungry chowhounds meant only one or two bites for each. This let us sample a huge array of food.
Appetizers were first: otah-otah panggang was a chewy fish cake wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled. You pulled off the charred leaf and popped the smooth fishcake into your mouth with a dab of peanut sauce. That sauce accompanied most of the appetizers, and was a far cry from its more familiar Thai cousin: smoother, less spicy, very addictive. Martabak telor was a flat, dough-wrapped ground beef and egg mixture with pickled vegetables on the side. Two deep-fried spherical appetizers, krokets (mashed potatoes with beef) and risoles (batter-fried chicken), followed. The risoles were definitely my favorite: tender chicken inside the crispy fried exterior, a great match with the spicy peanut sauce.
Next up was gado-gado, a chopped lettuce and carrot salad with tofu in a delicious peanut dressing, wonderfully wilted by vinegar into a smooth melange. Then followed soups: sato betawi (beef meat and tripe sliced with potatoes and tomatoes in silky coconut milk--we ordered a second without tripe for the uncertain) and sop Buntut (oxtail soup with carrots, tomatoes and crackers, one of the great soups of Indonesia). I liked the sato betawi, as I love coconut milk soups, warm and filling--good thing, too, because our half of the table didn't get any oxtail soup, it was snarfed up by our fellow chowhounds! We ordered a second bowl and all was well.
The satays we were familiar with from other Southeast Asian cuisines, but the Indonesians put a slightly different spin on them, cutting the meat differently and using a different style peanut sauce. The sate Padang was skewered beef and tripe with little pads of rice beneath; the sate campur, one of the highlights of the entire meal, sampled chicken, lamb and beef skewers (ah, that crispy, tender ground beef!) with a delicious peanut sauce and sparkling cool cucumbers. Pia was quick to urge that sauce onto the cucumbers, and she was right on the money--a delicious match of taste and texture.
Appetizers complete, we moved on to the main dishes. The seafood dishes included empeh-empeh palembang, a grilled fish cake filled with egg in a spicy tamarind sauce, and ihan bandeng presto, another standout of the meal, a whole milkfish marinated and grilled, served with an outstanding spicy red chili sauce, a definite must-order next time we come by Java. Hdang-goreng mentega was a dish of sauteed prawns in a butter sauce, perhaps the favorite of the other end of the table.
Chowhound conversation was lively, from events on the board to art and music and dance and business--Wells got the chance to go into his spiel about digital music. I suspect people were interested, but it was hard to say, as the food was distracting us! The beef and chicken dishes were up next, and we enjoyed small bite-size portions of rendang, a beef cooked in chili and coconut milk, and empal goreng, a deep-fried marinated beef that was crispy on the outside and tender inside. This was Wells's personal favorite, but then, he's a sucker for textures like that. From the chicken dishes on offer Han selected ayam goreng rica-rica, a fried chicken in chili sauce, and ayam goreng mentega, the same butter sauce as on the prawns, applied to a sauteed chicken. It's hard to find an analogy to this sauce in Western cooking: perhaps a brown butter sautee comes closest. I could have eaten a whole plate of that butter chicken, but I only scored a small piece.
By this point, even we dedicated chowhounds were getting full. Dessert rounded out the meal, with two different drinks: es cendol and es teler, both fruity, semi-frozen concoctions with jello blobs floating in a sweetened base you had to slurp with a huge straw. The style was deeply Southeast Asian, and perhaps something in them confounds the North American palate. I'm not a big fan of things floating in my drinks, I suppose. We finished off with pisang goreng a fried banana in chocolate sauce, a great finish to a wonderful meal.
Java is a true Chowhound find--great thanks to Han! Wells and I will definitely return--we didn't even get to try any noodle dishes, and there's about 35 other things on the menu we didn't touch! Indonesia has a wonderful cuisine all its own, distinctly different from Thai or any other of its Southeast Asian cousins, and we had no idea it even existed. After-dinner conversation with the chowhounds was as much fun as the meal. Java was a great experience, and hopefully the first of many Chowhound evenings.
Java, Indonesian Restaurant
3015 Geary Blvd.
San Francisco, CA 94118
Phone: (415) 751-8006
A Burke and Wells Review