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Restaurant Indonesia Serves Culture With Its Cuisine

October 01, 1992|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

Indonesia is one of the world's most exotic lands, if it makes sense to call a complex of islands more than 3,000 miles long a land. Restaurant Indonesia, new in Anaheim, envelopes you in the country's intricate culture and makes you long to repeat the experience. It is probably the most compelling Asian restaurant to open locally in recent memory.

Partners Dan Prasada, Douglas Emerson and Prasada's mother, Hetty Saphidin, have fashioned a restaurant that also suggests an exhibit hall and a living room. Saphidin, the chef, hails from Sunda, West Java, one of Indonesia's dozens of linguistic and culinary enclaves. Prasada is an alumnus of Cornell's Hotel and Restaurant School and the Ritz-Carlton chain, which explains, in part, the restaurant's uncommonly genteel style. Emerson is maitre d' and de facto interpreter. He positively relishes explaining the unusual fare that pours out of this kitchen.

It isn't just food that makes Restaurant Indonesia remarkable, though. Many of the archipelago's wondrous handcrafts are on display here--not museum-quality pieces perhaps, but curiosities all.

The garuda, Indonesia's national symbol, is a fierce, mythical bird from the Hindu epic known as the Ramayana. Here, a gaudily painted wooden model dominates the center of the dining room. That colorful sheathed knife mounted on a side wall is from Balikpapan on the island of Kalimantan, the giant, uncharted place previously known as Borneo.

Dozens of batik shawls, hung on nearly every patch of bare wall, add hypnotic calm. The batiks are color spasms of fractal patterns, made by craftsmen from Sumatra, the Celebes and several of Indonesia's lesser-known regions. A side table contains wayang, the color-splashed Indonesian puppets, and batik shirts, themselves chaotic fashion statements. These last items, incidentally, may be purchased, although no one volunteers the information.

Now a word about gamelan, the music that chimes hauntingly in the background here. Many ethnomusicologists consider gamelan the world's most rhythmically complex musical form. Flutes, fiddles, gongs, xylophones and other percussion instruments mesh in subtly orchestral counterpoints, producing soft, penetrating and oddly new age sounds. This music is the perfect metaphor for Saphidin's cooking, full of complex rhythms of a different kind.

All her dishes are accompanied by acar, a diced vegetable relish and sambal bajak, a mild but infinitely complicated mashed chili paste the color of a deep red stain. There are also kerupuk to contend with, crisp pink crackers made from tapioca flour and dried shrimps. If you're lucky, the more unusual kerupuk palembang will be on hand. These are round, crunchy masses of worm-like squiggles, crackers made of dried fish and as bizarrely addictive as snacks get.

Many people think of rijsttafel when they think of this cuisine, a table's worth of small dishes eaten around white rice. You have this option here, but I recommend ordering a la carte for your first few visits. This is such a varied and interesting menu, it begs to be approached slowly.

Saphidin is what I'd describe as a superb home-style cook, and she has changed nothing from the recipes of her childhood. She'll be happy to show you the stone on which she grinds fresh turmeric root, cumin and coriander seeds, and you're bound to be aroused by the scent of lemon grass and coconut wafting out the kitchen.

For lunch the best choices would be soups and rice and noodle dishes. Soto ayam is the Indonesian version of mother's chicken soup, a meal in a bowl with chicken meat, tiny betel nut crackers, mung bean noodles, tofu and aromatic spices. Soto Jakarta is heartier, a bowl full of chunks of beef, fried potatoes and rice noodles in a creamy coconut broth.

One dish not to miss is nasi kuning, a heap of yellow rice surrounded by side dishes (its more famous cousin, nasi rames, employs nasi putih, white rice). This golden rice is so precious that the kitchen gives you too little of it. It gets its yellow color from turmeric, lime leaves and lemon grass, and the fluffy, rich texture from coconut milk.

Bami goreng consists of stir-fried egg noodle with bean sprouts, tofu, a choice of meat and as much sambal as you request. I prefer the lighter noodle bihun, the Asian equivalent of angel hair pasta. Tastes great, less filling, like many of Saphidin's creations.

Because this lady is from West Java, her cooking tends to be wet and spicy, grainy with ground spices. Rendang, the classic Indonesian dish of beef cooked in coconut milk, is generally prepared dry, halfway to beef jerky, but not here. This is merely the softest, most tender rendang I've ever tasted, a dream pot roast your mother would never have made. Eat it with sayur lodeh, mixed vegetables such as carrot, cucumber and tofu, steeped to languor in coconut milk and lemon grass.

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