Sun, 09 Feb 2003

Where to go for fine European cuisine

Bill Blade, Contributor, Jakarta

Before I start off, I must admit that I'm definitely among the converted when it comes to European food.

From the scintillating smoked salmon of the picturesque fjord- side villages of Norway to the scrumptious pastas of sun-drenched Sicily, from the wonderful oysters of misty Galway Bay in western Ireland to the steaming, garish pink borscht of Russia, Europe has something to suit every taste.

But where to go here in Jakarta to savor the best of what Europe has to offer the fastidious diner. Well, thankfully, there's no shortage of restaurants serving up the delights of the Old Continent, although the standard of the food, not to mention the service and ambience, varies dramatically.

So, in order to avoid any unfortunate faux pas on the epicurean front, here is my selection of the five best, most select, most urbane eateries serving European cuisine here in the nation's capital, in my opinion at any rate.

First and foremost on my list is Oasis (Jl. Raden Saleh Raya 47, telp: 315 0646), a redoubtable bastion of finesse and refinement that's housed in one of the few grand, colonial mansions left standing after the untamed hordes of voracious developers and officials were let loose on the streets of Jakarta.

Replete with an eclectic collection of asmat artifacts, masks from Kalimantan, and classical statues, all set off superbly by the architectural glory of their surrounds, Oasis has long been the place in Jakarta to combine fine food, classic design and outstanding service in an ambience that's sure to bring a tear to the eye of any true Dutchman, or other European for that matter.

With its focus on classic French, Dutch and German dishes, the Oasis menu has been criticized by some uncharitable commentators as being stilted, unchanging, almost frozen in time. All I can say, however, is that if this is what old-fashioned means, then call me a stick-in-the-mud any day.

For me, there are few dishes in Jakarta that can beat the Oasis's duckling bigarde in orange liqueur sauce, or, for that matter, their veal steak "Grand Mere", a superbly tender, melt-in-the-mouth steak smothered in a delectable, tangy Madeira sauce -- oooh, makes me hungry just writing about it!

Second on my wish list is Cafe Batavia (Fatahillah Square, tel: 691 5531), once again a wonderfully atmospheric restaurant, replete with a convivial, Kiplingesque (and award-winning) bar, all housed in a fine old colonial building that, like the Oasis, was somehow saved from the demonic depredations of the Jakarta developers.

This is such an authentic reincarnation of graceful old Batavia, they've even got a series of portraits of the Netherlands Indies' governors-general lining one of the walls in the bar.

With recipes culled from the classic cook books of Europe, not to mention cutting-edge Australian cuisine, this particular rendezvous comes as something of a revelation amid the grime of Kota, a true beacon in a wilderness of mediocrity.

As you will probably have gathered by now, I'm a complete and utter sucker for the hearty fare of northern Europe, replete as it is for me with memories of cold, wet and windy winter evenings spent huddled around the fire -- an inclement climate made bearable only by the hearty, steaming broths and stews, and butter-saturated breads of my homeland, Ireland.

Fare that's not all that different, in fact, from what's big in the traditional cauldrons of the Netherlands.

Which is why for my next choice of fine European restaurant, I must opt for Mr. Klaas Kemp's dark-timbered and evocative The Golden Memories (Jl. Ampera Raya, telp: 782 9555/6), a little bit of Amsterdam miraculously transported to the tropics, and home to one of the finest collections of Netherlands Indies memorabilia that you'll find here in Jakarta (pre-1945 history appears to be an unknown beast around these parts).

Among this fine restaurant's culinary claims to fame is the fact that it's always one of the first in town to get the nieuwe haring freshly flown over from the Netherlands. These are a Dutch tradition, the first herring of the year to be netted by the North Sea fleet after the season opens in early May.

In fact, they're awaited with as much eagerness by the Dutch as the Beaujolais Nouveau is by wine connoisseurs worldwide.

Among the other indulgences I'd recommend in Mr. Kemp's establishment is the Blande Vinken (stuffed paupiettes of veal served with fresh, creamed spinach and new potatoes), and his other-worldly whipped-cream pastries and tartlets.

My three choices so far have, obviously, been very strongly influenced by the culture and cuisine of Northern Europe. So, in order to avoid umbrage on the part of all dedicated aficionados of Mediterranean cuisine, for my next choice I think I'll plump for an Italian eatery, Domus at Jl. Veteran I No. 30-32 (telp: 344 7288/344 7289).

Once again, a restored colonial building provides the gracious setting for what is in my book Jakarta's finest Italian restaurant, a venue that is also blessed with a stylish cigar bar upstairs that could easily have you imagining yourself taking it easy back in the Batavia of the 1930s as you puff languidly on your cheroot.

Among the Chef's specialities here are salmone rifieno patate con salsa capsicum (a tangy, stuffed, pan-fried salmon with potato served with a capsicum sauce), and mezzelune ai gamberoni salsa dello chef (superb pasta-filled prawns served with the Chef's own light tomato sauce).

And don't forget the ossobuco alla Milanese (roasted veal shank served with Milanese-style rice) -- a veritable delight!

Of course, any discussion of fine European cuisine must pay homage at the altar of those remarkable French chefs who for centuries have been making such a contribution to the development of the culinary arts throughout Europe, as well as the world.

For this, I have decided after much deliberation to go for Le Bistro, one of the oldest dedicated bistros in Jakarta.

Tucked away in a little garden at Jl. Wahid Hasyim No. 75 (tel: 390 9249, 391 2025), I must say right off that I haven't nominated this particular eatery for the ground-breaking fare on offer, nor the inspiring vintages that you'll find hidden away in the cellar. No, it's rather the whole ensemble at Le Bistro that grabs me, and always has. It really does resemble for all the world what a bistro was originally meant to be -- a simple, rustic establishment serving up good, wholesome food that's guaranteed to keep the wolf from the door.

No nouvelle cuisine here, but lot's of nourishing goodness, and an atmosphere that's as Gallic as it's possible to get this side of Suez (with the exception of the French colonies, of course).

So, now you've got the info, it only remains for me to wish you bon appetit!