April 8, 2009

Dining in a museum (sort of...)

I never intended to write a review when I went to Lara Djonggrang.

My husband and I recently went there on a spur of the moment. We happened to be in the neighborhood during the evening rush hour and we wanted to wait out the congested traffic by stopping for dinner first. At first my husband suggested a noodle place located on the same street, but as we were approaching it we changed our mind at the last minute.

The unique thematic décor of Lara Djonggrang already began at its parking lot. The mood was immediately set by a gnarly, ancient-looking beringin (banyan) tree of enormous girth that stood like a sentry by the entrance. Its long-reaching branches spread over most of the lot and giant multi-colored lanterns along with the banyan's aerial roots dangled down from this living green canopy.

The non-smoking dining area we were ushered into was dimly lit, but we could still see numerous antique Indonesian artworks on the walls and various pedestals all around the room. There were enormous stone carvings and wooden statues, wayang puppets and traditional paintings. Even some of the furnitures could be considered carved artworks (I tried moving/lifting a chair, boy, it was hefty!). Other sections of the restaurants were similarly decorated. Votive candles were placed everywhere, on tables and footpaths, and floated on the indoor ponds, providing an intimate vibe and intensifying the mystical feel at the same time.

This piece was set right outside the window,
it was over one meter high.

As I sat down and absorbed all this, the overall impression was like entering a museum of Indonesian antiquities to have dinner in it, which was not surprising given the fact that the restaurant is named after a mythical Javanese princess who was turned into stone by a spurned suitor. The legend of Lara Djonggrang was literally 'carved in stone' and immortalized by a complex of ancient Hindu temples (candi) in Prambanan, Central Java. The restaurant's décor was very evocative of that whole mystical atmosphere (I even smelled a whiff of incense when I stepped through the door!).

Okay, now to the food itself! The menu was quite extensive with a wide selection of seafood, beef, poultry and vegetables prepared in traditional Indonesian ways. The cuisine was rather loftily described as 'Imperial Indonesian', even though there were also more pedestrian fares like tempeh and tahu. We both decided to order out of a section titled Nasi-nasi Kepulauan (Rice Platters of the Islands) where each 'platter' is named after a region of the Indonesian archipelago and comes complete with rice and a slew of side dishes from that region. I chose the Balinese rice platter and my husband the Padang (West Sumatra) platter. Other regional platters included those from Central Java, West Java, Manado, etc., each with its respective unique ethnic side dishes.

When our orders came I was quite impressed. I was expecting the rice platter to be served in the usual 'nasi campur' (mixed rice) way: a heap of steamed rice crowded by a variety of side dishes, all plopped on a single plate. But not here: the waiter first set down the rice which had been molded into the shape of Arjuna's head (so said our waiter. I thought it was an island at first and I was trying to identify it.). Even the actual plate itself wasn't just your typical plain restaurant-white: it was an oversized ceramic piece with ornamental designs.

Then our server returned with an even bigger serving platter containing bowls filled with the side dishes. I counted them: there were seven side dishes for each order, and that's not even including a serving of crispy beef cracklings for each of us. So between the two of us, we were able to sample fourteen separate dishes!

The side dishes of the Balinese Rice Platter

I loved the Balinese sambal matah (I'm a sucker for all manners of sambal) with its fragrant slivers of lemongrass. The famous Balinese duck specialty, Bebek Betutu, was falling-off-the-bones tender and thoroughly marinated by its spiced sauce. The vegetable and squid (or octopus?) dishes were okay, but not memorable. I also had a taste of ikan balado (fish in chilli sauce) and beef rendang from my husband's platter. Both were nicely spiced, but I noticed the level of 'heat' of these dishes (even the chilli-laden sambal) was far below normal. I'll go into my theory of why this is so later.

Crispy deep-fried beef skins/cracklings

A serving of serundeng (a condiment made of deep-fried grated coconut, spices and peanuts) was included as a side dish in both orders. I love serundeng, for it gives steamed rice and whatever dish it's sprinkled on an extra crunchy, savory kick. And for whatever reason, the serundeng from my husband's Padang platter also included salted ikan teri.

If you come for the first time to Lara Djonggrang like we did, I highly recommend ordering one of the Rice Platters. It gives you an opportunity to try a variety of dishes at once without over ordering. And it's quite a huge serving, too, I couldn't even finish mine. Moreover, it's surprisingly economical: our rice platter only cost Rp.68,000 each (about US$6 at the time of this writing), not including the 10% tax and 5% gratuity charges. As a matter of fact, most of the items on the menu were moderately priced and not as expensive as we first thought, given the upscale setting.

So what's the bottom line? Lara Djonggrang is truly one of the most unique and memorable restaurant I had ever dined in, but it's based on the overwhelmingly thematic fit-for-a-museum décor and detailed, above-the-ordinary food presentation. That's also why I decided to write this 'review'.

The food itself is good and authentic, but I've had better.

I also made an interesting observation while dining there: while the restaurant wasn't full because it was a weeknight, I noticed that my husband and I were practically the only exclusively Indonesian customers there. All the other tables were made up of foreigners (even when there were other Indonesians, the others in their party were non-Indonesians). There was even a Caucasian lady who came into the dining room with a little blond girl, talking to each other in American accent (which made me miss southern California even more...).

Reading other reviews, foreigners seemed to fall head-over-heels over the 'luxurious romance' evoked by the setting (... romance? eh?). Or maybe it's the exotic allure of another ancient culture that appealed to them. As an Indonesian however, I have my own impression: it's a bit spooky. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the depth and breadth of culture represented there, but just not as a background for dining.

So if you have foreign/non-Indonesian friends to impress and want to treat them to authentic Indonesian food without worrying that it could give them diarrhea (either from questionable hygiene or overly-spicy-food), take them to Lara Djonggrang where they'll be steeped in ancient Indonesian culture unlike in any other restaurants.

As we walked to our car, I couldn't help but gawk again at the banyan branches soaring high overhead with its pretty lanterns and tentacle-like roots. I quipped to my husband, "If there's one word to describe this place, it's atmospheric."

Jl. Teuku Cik Di Tiro 4
Jakarta Pusat
+62 (21) 315-3252

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