Every city has one.
You know, the place you ask your hotel for recommendations for something “local”, and they point you to an upscale venue. In Singapore, you go to Boon Tong Kee or Jumbo. Jakarta too, has places like these, and one of them is Lara Djonggrang. Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t a bad recommendation. In fact, I’d say that with its charming Dutch colonial house setting, stocked with antiques from an older age, recalling a bittersweet but necessary era, it’s a great initiation to Indonesia, its culture, its people and its food.
As Singaporeans, because we’re so exposed to multiculturalism – sometimes virtually at gunpoint, in an almost hostile manner, what with all the claustrophobia and intimidation by foreign migrants in the country – and because of our hectic lifestyles, we lack the time and luxury to truly understand each and every facet, we adopt a very ‘labelist’ attitude. It’s not good or bad pe se, but a coping mechanism which sometimes blinds us to what really is out there. We’re woefully ignorant about Southeast Asia, and we tend to overlook the diversity and dynamism of the region, forming assumptions that are not necessarily set in reality, dismissing our southern neighbor for example, as “just another Malay state”. Well, Indonesia’s not just another Malay state, and over the course of the next few posts, I’m going to, in my small little way, unravel the curtain.
Located in the high-end district of Menteng in Central Jakarta, Lara Djonggrang is part of the Tugu Group. Named after a popular Javanese folktale which speaks about love and betrayal – Rara Jonggrang meaning “slender virgin” in Javanese – there’s a certain mythical, almost surreal atmosphere about this living and breathing museum. It’s never goes to the level of being “haunted”, and insteads retains a certain yesteryear sophistication which I read, is entirely manufactured so kudos to the Tugu Group on the atmosphere! The restaurant, TripAdvisor notes, is supposed to be well patronized but on this Friday afternoon, besides us, there were like, maybe one or two tables that were taken? Or maybe it’s because of the fasting month?
Let me tell you, the menu is quite substantial (as I would find in all the eateries in Jakarta), and I mean it. Lara Djonggrang’s menu is a needlessly detailed encyclopedia, with listings for signature and secondary classics of every single Indonesian region. From Sumatran to Sundanese, from Sulawesi to Nusa Tenggaran, from Maluku to Papua, from Javanese to Balinese…it’s a lot, and I don’t want this post to be a list of recommendations because well, it isn’t. Rather, it’s a tease of what there is available. So, take your time, but if you, like me, plan to eventually visit the rest of Indonesia, then frankly, this is just the obligatory “expensive first meal”. Just pick out the items which have the words, “Lara Djonggrang” in front of them.
Oh yes, you might want to come with lotsa people. The portions are huge, and the prices are so “cheap”, you’ll probably overorder.
We started with the ubiquitous fried chicken. If you love your tenders wholesome, then I’d suggest to avoid chicken in Indonesia altogether (except the fastfood chains). Malnourished, slightly tough and incredibly game, my experience with Indonesian chicken is definitely an acquired taste, but it’s a great experience. You know how sometimes imperfection is a sign of perfection and naturalness? Well, I’d eat this malnourished chicken any day than roided up hens.
Mutton soup gets a rather bad reputation in Singapore. The predominantly Singapore Chinese population of Southern Chinese descent have an instinctual ethnic aversion towards heavy and pungent flavors, and the tumeric-laden stewed mutton broth served by Indian-Muslim houses is virtually abhorred by many. As a result, lamb and mutton is not a very popular meat. However, even if you dislike mutton and hate its smell, I call on you to trust me, and order the oxtail soup here. Lara Djonggrang have done a perfect job of reconciling the pungent flavors into a very light yet rich and hearty bowl of goodness. I know it’s an oxymoron, but yeah, it’s rich and light. That’s all I can say, and it’s wonderful.
I hate the tempe that Ayam Penyet Ria serves. It tastes weird, and has this incredibly odd taste that makes it the far uglier cousin of tofu (they’re essentially made with the same ingredients: soy). However, if tempe was looking for a new face, it should definitely pick this one. Crisp and slim, in an almost tempura consistency, this was a joy to eat, or should I say, snack on. Pair this with the life-shaking green chilis, and you’ll be begging for seconds.
The next dish wasn’t served last, but you know what they say, “save the best for last”, or something to that effect. Although Singapore is a major exporter of ornamental Dwarf Gourami, you’ll be hard pressed to find the commercial fish, or any freshwater fish, in markets and restaurants in Singapore. Believe me, I’ve checked (but hey, my mom says I suck at searching for things at home, so I’m ready to be corrected). For that, you’ll have to look to China, Thailand and Indonesia. There’s a certain creamy richness to the meat that saltwater fish just lacks, and as someone who rarely eats freshwater fish, it’s definitely a treat. So, despite the hefty pricetag (comparatively), we or rather, I, ordered the simply named, “Gurame”. Grilled on a banana leaf with minimal seasoning, and served alongside an equally large serving of freshly made sambal chili (in Indonesia, sambal chili is like wine, there are many, many types and eating it is an art in itself). It was, simply heaven, I’ll tell you.
Lara Djonggrang Jakarta
Opens: Everyday from 1100 to 0100h
Jl Teuku Cik Ditiro 4
Menteng, Central Jakarta
Technically a 5 minute walk from KRL Cikini station, but with inconsistent pedestrian paths and crossings, unless you have nerves of steel, you’re better off taking a taxi like everybody does.