Wed, 12 Sep 2001

Padang food makes transition to five-star setting

JAKARTA (JP): Padang delicacies are this country's fast food. It's said so often that it has become a comfortable cliche, like saying Indonesia is the land of smiles.

Of course, it's not cooked to order, like the offerings at the golden arches and the smiling colonel, but sits there on its stack of gingerly balanced plates in the window for the good part of the day and night for all-comers when the hunger pangs hit.

The traditional way is to have it from a small warung (food stall), a bare-basics establishment where "decor" is limited to the artificial flowers and plastic table covering, if that. But the surroundings are the supporting player to the main event of the meal. You pay for what you eat from the small bowls that are set before you, and the remaining victuals are scooped away for diners yet to come.

Now, of course, there are also chain restaurants offering Padang. The setting is spruced up a bit, the waiters know a smattering of English for when foreign visitors pass their way and it's more expensive, but essentially the experience is the same as in the Padang eateries that dot all corners of the archipelago.

A different proposition occurs when a hotel gets an idea to serve up Padang, which is what the five-star Le Meridien is doing in a food festival at La Brasserie restaurant until Sept. 16.

The distinctly French atmosphere of the restaurant has undergone some changes in keeping with the event. Miniature wooden Minang houses, with their distinctly curved roofs, decorate the partitions between the buffet spreads, the jaunty traditional music of West Sumatra plays in the background and the waiters and waitresses are adorned in red-and-gold Padang finery.

For the opening night on Monday the selections included three types of gulai (curry) -- beef brain, jackfruit and chicken --, dendeng balado (dried beef in chili), the particular soto (chicken broth) of West Sumatra plus the king of Padang food, rendang (beef stewed in coconut milk and spices).

For dessert there was kolak (stewed bananas in coconut milk) served with glutinous rice, serabi (rice flour cakes) and different types of porridge.

No Padang meal is complete without a sampling of rendang, which can be made in a thickish sauce, or simmered for hours until the meat is caramelized, breaks apart on the fork and, yes, melts in the mouth.

The Meridien version tends toward the thicker-sauce variety but, thankfully and somewhat surprisingly, the spices have not been toned down for milder palates. It was tasty, hot and delicious eaten with white rice, cabe hijau (green chili sauce) and emping (melinjo crackers).

The dendeng I've eaten in the past was always dry and crispy, but the meat at the hotel was moister, more like braised strips of meat, although the chili factor was still glaringly present. It would be unfair to say too much about the curried jackfruit because we arrived toward the end of the evening when most of the sauce had already evaporated and the vegetable was fast turning into mush. It was a pity, however, that there were no perkedel, the heavenly tasting potato or corn cakes, which are a winner with people from all over.

But the heavy sauces and meats of Padang food fill you up, and there was only a bit of room left to try the desserts. The serabi were a bit dry, but that again had something to do with the time factor. The dessert that really impressed was the bubur kampiun, with its sweet, caramelly flavor a perfect counter to the spiciness of the main entrees.

It's Padang food all right (the waitress told me a Padang restaurant chef was recruited specially for the promotion) and it is tasty, but, even with the music and pretty decorations, it cannot really be called a Padang restaurant experience. Picking food from a buffet (the menu items are changed daily) is not the same thing as having the plates put in front of you Padang style, and forget about pushing your cutlery aside and trying the Padang way of eating with your fingers.

The flip side, though, is that it does bring this excellent cuisine to some diners who probably would never have thought of setting foot in a traditional Padang eatery. For others, who are already long acquainted with Padang delicacies, it's a chance to renew the old love affair in a new setting, and the Rp 99,000 ++ price for lunch or dinner includes additional buffet choices of European entrees, salads and desserts. (Kevin Vickers)