Wed, 31 Mar 1999

A taste of the Mediterranean at La Marunda

JAKARTA (JP): So many Jakarta restaurants have a distinct attitude problem. Problem is they fling a lot of attitude around in their froufrou decor and designer togs for the staff, but it does not amount to much when it comes to the quality of food and service on offer.

Said it before, but will say it again -- dress it up with a fancy name and cart it out in a too-fancy-for-words setting, and customers are supposed to come running back for more. Reasoning must be that if one stomps around with the attitude and the airs, diners, sadomasochists all, will hungrily covet more of the paltry lashings.

Well, not this one. You can call it "pollo" as often as you like (a liberal sprinkling of foreign names, it seems, is considered a stamp of style), but it is still bland, unappetizing slivers of chicken barely covering pale doorstops of peasant bread, slopped up unceremoniously and, most aggrieviously, with no respect for customers.

After that regrettable Sunday lunch, Epicurus was intrigued by the possibility of dinner at La Restodate Marunda, tucked away in a corner off the coffee shop of the Santika Hotel. Never heard of it? Neither had Epicurus until stumbling upon it last week during a visit to the hotel, located in the Petamburan-Slipi area.

And a fortunate discovery it proved to be. Touting itself rather loftily as an establishment offering delicious Mediterranean cuisine, La Restodate Marunda may seem headed for a fall. Its refreshing and distinguishing point, however, is that it delivers, serving up adventurous, tasty food in an understated but welcoming setting.

Much thought and care obviously went into its decor, a combination of earthy tones and pastels with colorful wall paintings conjuring up images of lazy afternoons in a Greek village. Even the cutlery and Italian-inspired dinnerware make an excellent fit.

A taste of the delicious fare to come arrived with a heaped bowl of focaccia, studded with chunks of olives, and dipped into herb-flavored olive oil.

For the appetizer, two soups were ordered by Epicurus and dining partner. Both soups were outstanding and, with the focaccia, would have made fine meals in themselves. The spring garlic, potato and sage soup relied on the predominance of potatoes and was not overwhelmed by the flavor of the two herbs. For diners who like their food with a kick but not so hard as to cause a slow burn, the roasted red pepper soup, with basil and a scoop of fresh cream, was a delightful departure from the standard cream of tomato soup.

Onto the entrees. Roast chicken stuffed with herbs was succulent and excellently paired with a spinach risotto. Honorable mention should go to the latter, al dente and not stewed into a porridge.

Epicurus opted for pepperoni pizza. What is news about a slab of bread with cheese and sausage, I hear you ask. Well, reasoning is that often a restaurant's seeming "afterthoughts" are actually the best gauge of its overall quality.

And excellent it proved to be. A crisp bread base, slathered with tomato sauce, mozzarella and a light (how often can that be said about the Italian pie?) and tasty sausage.

Even Epicurus' dining companion -- who vouched earlier that these food columns could be a tad more snippety in comments about Jakarta eateries -- was forced to eat his words. Dessert of an interesting chocolate-apricot torte, which was not too moist as to resemble a mousse nor cloyingly sweet, and the heavenly nut- crammed baklava were satisfying. Beautifully presented, they were the perfect end to a perfect meal.

Before all the doubting Thomases start pointing to conflicts of interest because Santika is part of the Gramedia Group, which is a shareholder of this newspaper, let's just say there can be no favoritism in matters of the stomach. Epicurus calls them as they taste, with no concern for who may be hovering in the kitchen or signing the lease.

It is merely that La Restodate Marunda, which is open only for dinner, is that good. Averaging Rp 16,000 for soups, Rp 30,000 for the main courses and Rp 16,000 for the desserts (baklava by itself can be a pricey expenditure), it was worth every cent. It is a restaurant deserving of a visit and, despite its out-of-the- way location, should rightfully distinguish itself as one of the capital's most pleasant dining locations once word gets out.

-- Epicurus