Wed, 16 Apr 2003

Kirin still requires a little fine-tuning

Bill Blade, Contributor, Jakarta

I don't know what you think, but it seems to me that when God invented the Chinese restaurant, he basically came up with three all-weather prototypes.

The first is your average run-of-the mill white tile and bright fluorescent light job, normally characterized by lots of screaming and shouting from the kitchen and, decor-wise, akin in many ways to what one imagines a KGB interrogation room would look like. Never mind that, though, these joints are just the ticket for super-tasty nosh at remarkably low prices, and in Jakarta are ten-to-a-penny in Kota.

Then, you have your middle-of-the-range job, usually marked by an abundance of red everywhere -- lanterns, threadbare carpet, tablecloths -- whatever it is, you can be pretty sure it's red, and a general taste in interior design that is reminiscent of the sort of sets they use in Hong Kong art house movies such as Fist of Slaughter Killing Fury 6 or, my favorite, Legend of Drunken Baby Master 12.

These establishments are often the happy hunting ground of a rather overbearing and less-than-welcoming Madame, who is also normally partial to the odd bout of screaming and shouting. Although the food is pretty much guaranteed to be tasty, good value frequently seems to have been forgotten somewhere along the line.

Finally, you have the top-of-the range models, which, rather like American stretch limos, are usually larger than life, overwhelming and pretty difficult to come to grips with -- every fitting and fixture of the highest, bowl-me-over quality, and prices that are designed solely and surely to remind the diner once again that he's made it into the world of the stinking rich and unashamedly famous.

The latest such stretch-limo model to park itself up here in Jakarta goes by the name of Kirin Seafood Restaurant, which takes its moniker from a mythical Chinese beast that bestows good fortune on any lucky individual it happens to bump into. Believe it or not, it is also the first outing by a Canadian chain of Chinese restaurants in Asia -- talk about sending coals to Newcastle and all that!

I must say, here and now, despite all my superior, know-it-all ramblings above, this particular eclectic extravaganza is not half bad, even though they appear to have more male floor walkers in black suits and headsets than the producers of Men in Black ever dreamed. There's no doubt about it, this is a truly monumental establishment, something along the lines of a little piece of the Forbidden City carted lock, stock and barrel to Jakarta.

With a soaring ceiling -- the main dining salon occupies a space stretching up two whole floors -- lots of satisfyingly solid stained timber, including a massive winding staircase up to the second floor dining area -- perfect for wedding shots -- and an impressive wooden bridge looking down on the goings-on in the main salon below, this will be a delight for everyone who, like me, finds the traditional architecture of the Middle Kingdom truly delightful.

Ditto for its art and design, for that matter, as they've some beautiful traditional wall paintings, attractively designed lanterns hanging from the center of the ceiling two floors above, and the stunning centerpiece: a massive, circular display on the rear wall showing a feisty Kirin in all his glory bestowing wealth and success on a couple of groveling, peasant-like ne'er- do-wells.

With impressive display of doomed denizens of the deep wiggling, crawling, swimming and otherwise whiling away their last hours in tanks set into the rear wall of the restaurant on either side of the Kirin mural, it's clear that this establishment takes its vocation as a seafood restaurant very seriously indeed.

Fresh Alaskan crab flown in from, er, Alaska, abalone from Japan and the Middle East, all sorts of other critters jetted in from Canada -- it soon became pretty clear to a red-faced yours truly that a lot of the stuff on the Kirin menu was going to be way beyond the reach of the frugal expense account allocated by the Post's number crunchers -- a notoriously stingy crew.

But, as it turned out, after professing my horror of killing cuddly crabs in a desperate effort to cover up my pecuniary limitations, there was lots of other nosh on the menu that was rather more affordable (read: more up the Post's alley).

Focusing on Cantonese cuisine, Kirin boasts the sort of vast menu that you would expect from any Chinese eatery worth its salt, and has something pretty much for everyone.

For the soup course, my partner went for the Minced Beef with Parsley and Green Onion Soup (Rp 30,000), a thick broth that was pronounced excellent, while my Shredded Duck with Dried Tangerine Peel Soup (Rp 32,000), was delectable and, going by the tang, had enough vitamin C in it to kill off even the most virulent strain of SARS. Given that I'm a dedicated lover of soups of all kinds, the bowls could have been a little bigger (that's the great thing about a buffet, no matter how bad or cold the food is, you can always take refuge in copious quantities of soup).

For my entree, I opted for the Sliced Pork in the Chef's Special Sauce (Rp 78,000), which sauce turned out to be pretty nondescript, if not actually bland. Another grouse: while the pork was mostly tasty and succulent, some slices were a bit on the salty side.

As for my partner's Sweet and Sour Chicken (Rp 78,000), the sour side was far and away predominant, something that may not appeal to those accustomed to the sweeter variety normally served up in Chinese restaurants in Jakarta.

I decided to forego a dessert, and in the end, my partner was forced to do the same as the Mango Pudding she ordered turned out to be unavailable due to problems procuring mangoes from the Philippines -- I would have thought there was more than enough of the things right here at home.

As for the service, it was patchy at times, with one waitress approaching the limits of tolerance as far as pushiness goes. Obviously, after only being open for a week, Kirin is still in the midst of a settling-in process and has one or two small problems to iron out. Judging by the amount of money and experience that has gone into producing the impressive package that this restaurant represents, hopefully it shouldn't take them too long before they get their house in order and the Kirin bestows wealth, health and good fortune on all concerned.


Kirin Seafood Restaurant (Jakarta), 4th Floor Carpark Building, Plaza Senayan, Jl. Asia Afrika, Jakarta. Telephone: (021) 5790 0168. Open Mon.- Sat., 11 a.m. - 2 p.m. (lunch) and 5:30 p.m. - 10:30 p.m. (dinner); and Sundays and public holidays from 9 a.m. - 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. - 10:30 p.m (opening hours subject to review). All prices quoted above exclusive of 5 percent service and 10 percent tax.