Tuesday, August 16, 2011

TMDTIATW: Indonesian Wonderment in Philly

The most delicious thing I ate this week (TMDTIATW) brought back deep memories. One of my favorite early discoveries was a canteen in the basement of the Indonesian Consulate. Here's how I reviewed it in my first book:
The Cafeteria in the Indonesian Consulate
5 E 68 St., Manhattan

Atmosphere/Setting: You walk down the stately steps of the Indonesian consulate, into the building's basement. Open the massive iron door, buzz to be admitted through another set of doors, pass a receptionist (tell her you're there for lunch), go through still another door and head straight toward what appears to be a large closet. In the center of this closet there's a single long table (covered with a cheap plastic cloth), at which dignified Indonesian men in suits are eating from paper plates. To the right, in a small alcove, a good humored Indonesian woman is juggling dozens of pots and pans on her huge antique stove. The smell is positively hypnotizing. Tell her you want to try EVERYTHING, and go have a seat at the table (grab some plastic utensils from the big central bucket and water from the water cooler) and await bliss.

House Specialties: The menu changes every day; you'll be served tastes of five or six different things, all piled high on your plate. Luscious possibilities include chicken or fish in spicy peanut sauce, spicy potatoes, tempeh concoctions, a vegetable hodgepodge or other and lots of perfectly-cooked rice. The sole complaint is that the sambal (fiery Indonesian chutney) is usually commercial...but at least it's a good brand.

Other Recommendations: There's optional soup, for an extra buck (raising your tab to a whopping $6). Go for it.

Summary & Comments: Not only is this by far the finest Indonesian food in town (perhaps in the entire country), it's also a regional style (Sundanese) hard to find cooked this well even in Indonesia. The cuisine will please even skittish eaters; its exoticness lies in the spicing and condiments, while staples are relatively familiar (the chef does cook pretty spicy, but rarely does she apply SERIOUS heat as you'd find in, say, Thai restaurants). While nobody minds well-behaved outsiders stopping by, this lunchroom is not particularly seeking our business, either. Be patient about waiting for your food, and expect little in the way of coddling. Remember, this is not a Real Restaurant

Note: there's also a cafeteria in the Indonesian U.N. Mission at 325 East 38 St., but it's nowhere near as good.
Chef Enid didn't stay long at the consulate. She catered for a while from her Queens apartment, but, several years ago, opened a little restaurant in my favorite neighborhood of Philadelphia, the food-dense Asian strip along Washington Avenue that's the closest thing the East Coast has to a San Gabriel Valley.

It's called Hardena (1754 Hicks St; 215-271-9442), I've been there a number of times, and her cooking is even more devastating than ever. I once devised a system for rating food on a scale of one to ten, and this is one of the very few where I'm guaranteed to achieve 10 ("Absolute certainty that no one at this moment, anywhere on Earth, is eating anything more delicious than what you're currently consuming. Total contentment, tinged with the rueful acknowledgement that life can't always be this good").

Indonesian food isn't Western. It's not even Asian. It's something different, and must be approached differently. Plates are heaped with a melange of different foods, and enjoyment is not about fussy probing. It's about cathartic digging in. The mindlessness is augmented by the fact that you won't recognize many of the ingredients. There's nothing to judge, it's a truly pure experience of inspiration.

Nothing to talk about, really. Specifics are utterly besides the point; analyzing components would be like cataloging the facial muscle movements of a heartfelt kiss. What matters is that everything on your plate makes you grimace, moan, and pound the table. You're in and out in twelve minutes. And your day will be a great, great day.

Photos (please click each to expand for the full food porn effect):
A completely vegetarian plate (that's jackfruit stew, not meat, believe it or not!).

Some meat on this one.

The ayam goreng (the most famous Indonesian chicken dish) was just coming off the stove as I finished my plate, and Enid realized an emotional breakdown was likely if I didn't get to try at least a bite...

Strangely, Enid commutes here from Queens. But the good news is that NYC residents can still hire her to cater (she's cooked for hundreds, though she'll also cater small groups). Just call the restaurant.

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