Fri, 24 Jan 2003

Where to go for a slap-up meal to celebrate `Imlek'

Bill Blade, Contributor, Jakarta

It's getting close to that time of year again when the blood of ethnic Chinese people worldwide begins to pump a little faster and younger Chinese people start to dream of fat red envelopes (Ang Pau as they are known in Jakarta, or Hung Bao in Mandarin).

Yes, we're only a short time away from the Lunar New Year (Imlek here in Jakarta), and what better way to celebrate this joyous and auspicious occasion, which falls on Feb. 1, than by bringing the family out for a slap-up meal with all the trimmings.

But where to go?

Of course, Jakarta has no shortage of fine eateries serving exquisite cuisine from all over China. Which, unfortunately, can sometimes lead to confusion, if not actually downright bafflement.

And so, in continuation of The Jakarta Post's long tradition of public service, we've prepared a list of some of the top Chinese restaurants in Jakarta, and the programs they're laying on for the big event.

Well, given that it's not every day we get to celebrate the Lunar New Year, we might as well go the whole hog, or should I say goat, for next year is the Year of the Ram.

And where better to start than in the Jakarta Hilton's Lotus Court (Tel: 5703600), one of the finest and most luxurious Chinese eateries in Jakarta. This year they're putting on a special Lion Dance (Barongsay) to keep the customers satisfied on the eve of the New Year. Starting at 7 p.m., you'd be well- advised to book early if you don't want to be disappointed.

Of course, there's no end to the arguments about which is Jakarta's definitively preeminent Chinese eatery, although many a would-be bon vivant swears by Ah Yat Abalone Forum, located in the Mid-Plaza, Building 2, on Jl. Sudirman (Tel: 5707333, average price range Rp 250,000 to Rp 350,000, much more, of course, for abalone, bird's nest or shark's fin delights). This can only be described as a riotous, garish piece of Hong Kong miraculously transported to Jakarta. But the food is top notch. And for the eve of the New Year, they're putting on special package menus for 10 diners at Rp 3 million, Rp 4 million and Rp 5 million a go depending on the type of tasty treats included.

In the Kota area, Jakarta's traditional Chinatown, the Hotel Omni Batavia on Jl. Kali Besar Barat now proudly plays host to Liyan (Tel: 6907936), a fine, three-month-old, upmarket eatery. And, once again, the eve of the New Year they will feature a Barongsay lion dance (starting at 6:30 p.m.). They're also giving away all sorts of door prizes and have a special 10-person, nine- course set menu going for Rp 2,880,000 net.

Another highly popular Chinese eatery is Samudra Shark's Fin at the Hotel Mulia Senayan on Jl. Asia Afrika (Tel: 5747777). You'll also find great entertainment here provided by a Barongsay troupe, and those ever popular ang pau lucky draws. Long a favorite with Jakarta families for its dim sum, for the big day Samudra Shark's Fin is offering three set menus at Rp 298,000, Rp 398,000 and Rp 538,000 per person respectively.

One of the most urbane, classical Chinese restaurants in Jakarta, the Shang Palace at the Shangrila on Jl. Sudirman (5707440) has gone and gotten itself all rejuvenated, and, as it happens, is none the worse for it. They're also staging a Barongsay dance to remind us of the cultural dimension and take our minds of our bellies for a while. With the proceedings kicking off at 6:30 p.m., our more earthly desires will be capably satisfied by an Imlek buffet that will set one back Rp 238,000 (plus 21% tax and service).

Perhaps my favorite upmarket Chinese restaurant here in Jakarta is Pearl, which you'll find tucked away in the JW Marriot Hotel in Mega Kuningan (Tel: 57988888). Like so many other Chinese restaurants, Pearl has laboriously selected the ingredients in its set menus so as to ensure the requisite levels of happiness and prosperity in the year ahead. These include such delights as Yu Sang (raw fish salad), which we are told symbolizes expanding business opportunities, Fa Cai, the last two syllables in the Chinese New Year greeting, Gong Xi Fa Cai, and fish (Yu), which ensure luck, happiness and everything good in abundance.

Other necessary ingredients include lotus seeds, which symbolize fertility, something that's essential to keep the in- laws happy, or so the Pearl blurb informs us, and Nian Gao (New Year rice cakes), apparently not to be missed as nian gao also means rising higher every year.

Pearl is offering three set menus, each featuring these propitious ingredients, among others, which will set you back Rp 268,000, Rp 298,000 or Rp 388,000 per person (all excluding 21% tax and service).

If you're looking for somewhere a little more unusual to celebrate the New Year, you could do a lot worse than check out Kuk Bin (Center Park Lt. 9, Jl. Sudirman, Tel: 5713330), one of Jakarta's only Chinese-Korean restaurants. Apparently, lots of Chinese people emigrated to Korea after the Communist takeover, taking their delectable cuisines with them, of course.

As with most transplanted cuisines, however, they became adapted to suit local tastes, which may broadly be described as being spicier and more sour than is the norm with most mainland Chinese cuisine. Nevertheless, about 60 percent of the dishes on the Kuk Bin menu, which is presented in Korean, Mandarin and English, should be recognizable to those familiar with traditional Chinese cuisine.

By the time you read this, however, there's a fair possibility that many of Jakarta's better Chinese eateries will be fully booked for the big day, in which case it could well turn out to be a case of getting out the Yellow Pages and taking potluck. But, one way or the other, you should be able to find somewhere to celebrate the once-a-year event in the style it deserves.

So, it only remains for me to wish you all Gong Xi Fa Cai, and bon appetit!