Wed, 17 May 2000

Remember sweet old days at the Oen

By Budi Sardjono

MALANG, East Java (JP): A restaurant may be able to retain its original cuisine for one generation at the most, so the theory goes. As an additional note, this rule of thumb applies if the restaurant serves specialties that no other restaurant does. Chances are that the restaurant will be losing its shine and customers after a generation.

Oen Restaurant, however, is somewhat exceptional in terms of longevity. Built in 1930 in the heart of the city, the restaurant's menu continues to be dominated by European and Chinese food. Nasi goreng (fried rice) is the only local fare on the menu.

Thanks to its loyal customers, the restaurant has maintained its business in the face of the invasion of Malang by modern major restaurant chains from the U.S. and other parts of the world.

The restaurant has changed little since opening: its architecture, furniture and paint color have not changed. The furniture consists of round wooden tables, long wooden tables and wooden and rattan chairs.

"We only repaint them. If a rattan chair needs repair, we only replace the rattan but we keep the same model," said Sawiji, an employee of the restaurant.

Oen is also well-known in the town as a cake shop. Cakes and bread are made with equipment and recipes from the '30s. With these traditional techniques, customers remain fanatic about the cakes.

"We have been customers for two generations," said Hermawan from southern Malang. "When I was a little boy, my grandfather bought me cakes from this restaurant."

Copycat restaurants using the Oen name have appeared in major cities like Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Solo and Semarang, but none have achieved the level of success as the original in Malang.

Oen goes to great lengths to retain its original architecture and food specialties, and vital to this effort to remain true to its roots is the restaurant's cooks. Several of the cooks said they were the "second generation" to cook for the restaurant since its founding in 1930.

"I have worked here since 1974," said cook Sulistyo Balego, whose late father, Daliman, also cooked for the restaurant. "When I was a child, my father would take me here and show me around the kitchen."

Like his father, Sulistyo is an authority on the European and Chinese food served at Oen. Working at the historic restaurant gives him a sense of pride.

"I have rejected numerous job offers. I love my job here," said the father of three.

Oen is a popular dining spot among the expatriates and foreign tourists in Malang. An estimated 80 percent of the restaurant's customers are foreigners, mostly Dutch. The place relies on word of mouth for much of its promotion.

Many foreigners have emotional ties to the restaurant, having eaten there when they were young and coming to Malang to pay a nostalgic visit to the restaurant. Many younger foreign visitors say they heard of the restaurant from their parents or relatives.

Near the restaurant is a building that once was a Dutch military barrack and a Catholic church stands across the street.

If you are lucky, you will have the chance to listen to the piano from the church across the street while enjoying nasi goreng with a gebakken (omelet), or something light like vleeskroketje. For those who like pork, there is the varkensvlees soya saus (pork with soya sauce).

Oen Restaurant is a good place to indulge in a little nostalgia while enjoying Dutch and Chinese delicacies.