Wed, 29 Nov 2000

How much is that abalone in the window?

By Grace Segran

JAKARTA (JP): When my friend Raymond e-mailed me about the Rp 11,000,000 abalone, I thought he made a mistake and added too many zeros. A second e-mail confirmed that this was no mistake, that the abalone served at Ah Yat Abalone Forum Restaurant at Mid Plaza on Jl. Sudirman does indeed cost Rp 11 million each.

We'll probably never have the chance to taste this extraordinary gastropod mollusk, unless there is a glut of abalone and the price falls to a fraction of its current rate. So we decided to saunter down to Ah Yat for a look-see.

It met us at the door. The abalone, I mean. There it was displayed in a showcase in all of its splendor. It was dried and brownish in color, a few times the size of a mussel, and stood out among its smaller counterparts.

Ben Tan, the assistant manager of the restaurant, explained why it was so expensive: an abalone takes 35 years to grow to this size. Moreover, abalones this size and age are difficult to find because of polluted waters.

Abalones, apparently, are graded according to the number of pieces per kati. A kati is 600 grams. The Amidori Abalone we came to see was graded "4 pieces per kati". According to Tan, abalones could be as big as one piece per kati; I did not dare ask what these might cost. The next best grade at Ah Yat, "6 pieces per kati", costs almost Rp 6 million each.

Ah Yat has a special menu for their prized abalones. As a routine, this menu is not given to guests. The gourmets and, needless to say, those with deep pockets will know to ask for it. Because there is a lot of work that needs to go into the preparation of these abalones, orders must be made a few days ahead of time.

Being mere mortals, we were handed a menu that was typical of a Chinese restaurant. However, we were spoiled for choice -- there were 141 items. Tan tells us that they also have many other dishes which can be prepared on request.

Raymond, who has been to the restaurant 20 or 30 times since it opened in June, tells me the food is consistently good. There are nine set menus ranging in price from Rp 155,000 to Rp 4,880,000 per person. According to Raymond, the Rp 250,000 menu is excellent and good value for money. This is because the fresh abalone "Ah Yat Style" included in the set would cost Rp 238,000 per piece on the a la carte menu.

We decided to go a la carte. We started with a soup with an unusual name: Mini Buddha Jumps Over the Wall. Also called Fu Thiaw Chiang, it costs Rp 150,000 per portion. The double-boiled soup, consisting of sharkfin, abalone, Japanese mushroom, dried scallop and chicken, was full-bodied.

This was followed by scrambled egg with fish maw, individually served (by special request) on a piece of shell-shaped salad leaf with scalloped edges. At Rp 50,000 it is good for four people.

Fried spareribs with "homemade sauce" were crispy and sweet. A portion has six pieces and costs Rp 38,000. Next we were served stewed goose web with Japanese mushroom. If one can get beyond how awful the web looks, the Rp 50,000 dish is worth trying. It was tender and mostly made up of skin and cartilage. The enormous Japanese mushroom was even better; it was thick and succulent.

Stewed brisket beef with "homemade sauce" (this one tasted different from the one used for the spareribs) was cooked in soy sauce and was very tender. Bits of Chinese celery added flavor to the dish.

Then came the abalone -- not the dried one that costs Rp 11 million -- but the fresh one that costs Rp 238,000. It was very smooth with a discreet but distinct flavor that I remember from my childhood days, when my mother would prepare abalone soup on Chinese New Year's Eve. I always enjoyed the chewiness as a child, and this transported me back to those good old days.

In Chinese banquet-style, the last course before dessert was noodles. We had "homemade" flat rice noodles, or kwetiau, fried with beef. After the magnificent meal, it was fitting to finish things off with fresh fruit. Which was complementary, thankfully.

During the meal, we were fussed over by attentive staff. There were at least 30 on duty on Sunday night in the mid-size restaurant, that can seat up to 300 people. The modestly decorated restaurant was busy as the turnover was good.

Apparently, they have over 500 guests for lunch on the weekend -- many of whom have to wait in line if they do not have reservations. Ah Yat must be doing something right. We suspect it's the food.