Cooks in Indonesia, formerly known as "The Spice Islands," really do use a vast range of seasonings -- although not all at once. The name of the country's best-known feast, rijstaffel ("rice table"), reflects Indonesia's past as a former Dutch colony. Both restaurants here offer rijstaffels, which consist of many dishes arranged around a mound of steamed rice, but it's obviously a strain on a small kitchen to deliver eight or 10 simultaneous mini-courses for just one or two eaters. The a la carte dishes we sampled seemed to sparkle a little more -- but by all means, try a rijstaffel when eating with a group.
Our first stop was Java, an attractive room with reed-paneled walls, carved screens, and batik tablecloths under glass. A seven-page menu offers over 80 items, including two versions of rijstaffel, while a separate vegetarian menu lists about a dozen more choices.
We were charmed by risoles ($3.50), lightly crisped rice croquettes whose crisp shells of batter surrounded creamy interiors filled with diced chicken, carrots, and peas. Another appetizer highlight was otak-otak ($4), grilled banana-leaf cigars, which you unwrap to find (and consume) translucent lengths of slightly sweet fish mousse. "Java's Combro" (sic) ($3.50) is a fritter of pureed cassava root filled with marinated mashed beans jolted with hot pepper.
Krokets ($3.50), yet another evident Dutch legacy, seem more familiar -- they're fried mashed potatoes stuffed with ground beef and onions and aromatic with coriander seed. Accompanying all appetizers was the crucial condiment of Indonesian meals, reappearing like a running gag: peanut sauce. Java's definitive, creamy-textured version has undertones of sweetness and heat. Soto buntut ($6.50) is a full-bodied oxtail soup, with bits of carrot and scallion accompanying the tender meat, topped with a handful of kerupuks (shrimp chips).
A quintessential Indonesian dish, gado gado ($5.50) is a tasty, filling salad of steamed seasonal vegetables, bean sprouts, tofu, and hard-cooked eggs, dressed in peanut sauce. Rujak cingur ($6) is more exotic, a salad of raw and cooked vegetables, tofu, beef tendon (resembling small puffs of gelatin), and a mild-flavored green mystery fruit in a fierce, spicy-sweet dressing sparked by tamarind and shrimp paste.
Nasi goreng (fried rice) is, of course, another staple. Java offers an unusual variation ($6.50), with lamb and pete (pronounced peh-teh), alias "stinky beans" -- small, bright green almond-shaped legumes, fresh-tasting with a slightly bitter aftertaste. Pete-eaters suffer an exotic variant of garlic-breath, hence the name. Luckily, there's also the standard, risk-free chicken-prawn nasi goreng.
Sate is another widespread favorite. Java's sate campur ($8.25) is an assortment of moist chicken, chewy beef, and ground lamb, robed in varied, enticing marinades based on kejap manis, the thick, sweet soy sauce whose name is the source of the English word "ketchup." Along with the inevitable peanut sauce, the sticks came with a refreshing, fine-chopped relish of tomatoes, carrots, and cukes. The "spicy chili sauce" on ikan balado (grilled salmon; $10) wasn't very spicy, though, tasting more like kejap Heinz.
Java's roti prata ($7) is a soft, thick wrapper overstuffed with richly seasoned ground meat to make a whole meal. The strangest flavor to our palates was tempe kerang ($7.50), slices of fermented dry soybean-cake stir-fried with powerfully fishy dried clams.
Desserts and beverages are grouped together on Java's menu, and the most interesting desserts are drinks -- milkshakelike combinations of fruits and condensed milk. Avocado "juice" ($3.25) decorated with a streak of chocolate syrup was luscious, while durian juice ($3.75) lets you enjoy the fabled fruit without suffering its notorious aroma -- just its refreshing, sweetly pungent flavor.
Our next port of call was Jakarta, where the foyer is guarded by a large, fierce, multicolored wood-carving of Garuda, the eagle of Vishnu. Two adjoining dining rooms are festooned with paintings, carvings, and crafts goods, while melodic gamelan music from the next-door island of Bali chimes through the rooms.
We began again with otak-otak ($4), this time a steamed version. The fish mousse was a flat cake with the texture of firm tofu, sandwiched between a pair of banana leaves. We were less taken by Jakarta's slightly chunky peanut sauce, which tasted better in the gado gado ($8), where vegetable juices thinned it out. Bakwan ($4.50), which look like crisp-fried little hedgehogs, are a combination of corn and small shrimp. The outer kernels were firm and caramelized, the inner ones soft, the combination pure fun. Martabak telor Jakarta ($5) are, in essence, samosas filled with seasoned ground beef, while kroket ($4) is a near-twin to Java's. Accompanying most appetizers are slices of tomato, cucumber, and pickled carrot, and delicious, freshly fried hot shrimp chips.
Two sticks of sate come with Jakarta's boldly seasoned prawn nasi goreng ($9). Even bolder is ayam goreng balada ($11), fried chicken in a spicy, tangy, slightly sweet red chili sauce that could easily become an addiction. (The restaurant sells a bottled version of the sauce.) The host described its heat as "7 on a scale of 10"; we decided 6, but who's counting? A remarkably tender chicken breast was worthy of the adornment.
Jakarta's beverage list includes two Dutch pilseners (Orangeboom in cans and Peters in a bottle) that suit the food well. The star of the short wine list is Pichot Vouvray ($25), a crisp, fruity white Loire that's dead right with this cuisine. For dessert, we tried another beverage, es kalapa muda ($3.25), a young coconut filled with a light mixture of rose syrup and coconut juice. Alluring rose syrup reappeared in alternate stripes with vanilla pudding, shaped into a lovely lotus-mandala at the base of a coconut-filled crepe ($4.25). Rounded into a large dumpling shape, the crepe was filled with intensely sweet coconut shreds, crisp near the shell and soft at the center. With food like that awaiting you, aren't you ready for a hot Java break?
3015 Geary (at Parker), 751-8006. Open Tuesday through Sunday noon to 10 p.m. Reservations accepted. Restroom not wheelchair accessible. Parking: generally easy. Muni: 38 Geary, 43 Masonic two blocks away. Sound level: quiet.
615 Balboa (at Seventh Avenue), 387-5225. Open Tuesday through Sunday 5 to 10 p.m. Reservations accepted. Restroom not wheelchair accessible. Parking: difficult, but slightly easier before 7:30; if desperate, park in adjoining driveway -- the "valet" will move car if/when a spot opens. Muni: 31 Balboa, 44 O'Shaughnessy; 38 Geary two blocks away. Sound level: quiet.