What a good restaurant Jayakarta is. And the chef, 52-year-old Irianti Jin, is even better: a woman who manages the impossible and keeps her good nature. On a recent evening she ventured out of the kitchen to neck-hug two guys who drove over from San Francisco for dinner, their first since Jayakarta opened in August. "We've missed you!" one of them whined as Jin clucked over them like some distant, amiable auntie before shuttling back to the kitchen.
For thirteen years, she cooked at Indonesia, a restaurant on the mean streets of the TenderNob. But this place is all hers, and the food has a distinct and lovely personality. Don't puzzle over that "ya" in the restaurant's name, by the way it's an archaic spelling of Indonesia's capital city.
For Jin, managing the impossible means pulling together Jayakarta's menu of more than eighty dishes every day without much help. The place is a simple storefront at the congested end of University Avenue, not far from campus, and its bare, bland pinkness and never-ending gamelan CD seem to sharpen your attention for the chef's cooking.
Look what Jin does with pepes ikan, fish cooked in banana leaf, a dish found all over Indonesia. Here it wore a layer of rich, densely woven flavors. Outside, the banana leaves were scorched, blistered in places, with a gorgeous burned-foliage aroma, the kind of irresistible scent that wafts from those massive corn-in-the-husk roasters that perfume Midwest street fairs. There's tilapia inside, sweet-fleshed and flaky, separating easily from spiky bones. But it's what was smeared over the fish that made it sing: a paste of garlic and candlenuts buttery and macadamia-like made fragrant with ginger, lemongrass, and turmeric. Turmeric powder, although the chef wishes she could find a consistent source of fresh and affordable roots.
Jin leans on friends and family to score turmeric leaves for her beef rendang, and they get tucked into luggage whenever anyone she knows travels back from Indonesia. It's worth every mile in those overhead bins: This was delicious rendang, with a fragrant, mahogany-colored herb-and-spice paste flocking big cubes of stringy beef knuckle. It filled our mouths with unctuous hits of sweet and salty even as the flesh unraveled into dry strands.
Those big, meaty wallops of flavor are giveaways that the food here is Betawi, which takes its name from Jakarta's indigenous people, who make up about a quarter of the city's population. Jin grew up in North Jakarta, where she was a street food vendor. You can get a taste of the Jakarta street, Betawi-style, in soto babat, a curry-and-coconut-milk soup studded with pieces of tripe. It had strong flavors and soothing textures, with thick, brown-rimmed slices of galangal, kaffir lime leaves, wedges of extraordinary ripe tomatoes (acidic and soft), and finely textured tripe, chewy, slightly tallowy, breathing a faint tang of offal.
Laksa ayam, a chicken and noodle soup, had similarly concentrated aromas, a mixture of yellow curry and buttery-tasting coconut milk, and the same focus on texture: fluffy, farinaceous hunks of potato, stiff quarters of hard-cooked egg, and a clump of egg noodles so fine it was nearly impossible to finesse portions into individual bowls.
Other dishes showed surprising delicacy. Kangkung with terasi water spinach stir-fried with fishy-tasting shrimp paste can be a dish as pungent and curdling as a wedge of overripe Roquefort. But here the terasi was no stronger than a smear of fresh goat cheese. It seasoned rather than overpowered the kangkung, which isn't really spinach but a member of the sweet-potato family that sprouts in swamps. It had crunchy hollow stems and a lithe, grassy taste. Jin's chile-spiked shrimp paste enhanced it the way cheese crumbles enhance a salad.
Otak-otak panggang, a roasted fish-cake appetizer, was delicate in a different way. The cakes are cylindrical, like logs of string cheese, rolled up in squares of banana leaf and fixed at both ends with staples, as if from an office stapler. They had the same blistered cornhusk fragrance that perfumes the pepes, and it seeped into the cakes themselves, giving the starchy, neutral-tasting fish tubes an appealing smokiness. They hardly needed their saus kecang, peanut sauce. Chunky, reddish, and sweet-tart, it packed a wicked load of slowly building fire.
Egg rolls, lumpia semarang, had a genial shredded-carrot filling and didn't taste like dank fry oil a mini triumph. Tahu goreng, deep-fried tofu triangles served with kecap manis, sweet and vinegary dark soy, had a porous, golden-brown crust like angel food cake, with the perfect dry and chewy texture.
Jayakarta's menu promises Indonesian-Singaporean cuisine, and there's at least one Malaysian specialty here. Roti prata may be Malaysia's best-known dish, bready pancakes with a texture that's a cross between thick, coarse crepes and deflated popovers. They're nowhere near the light, crispy-edged roti canai you get at Banyan Tree in Pleasant Hill, but they had a homey, margarine-enriched charm, and the yellow curry sauce for dipping showed off the refined side of Jin's spicing skills.
So did the creamy candlenut sauce spooned over sate kambing, lamb satay skewers. Kambing means goat; Jin originally floated a few goat dishes, but they didn't sell, a shame for us thrill-seeking authenticity junkies. The lamb tasted delicious anyway. It was charred, just fatty enough to seem luxurious, and infused with a lightly gamy aura. All of which the candlenut sauce both tamed and enhanced, like a pat of butter melting onto a steak.
Jin says she and her husband, who has a job outside the restaurant, picked this part of Berkeley deliberately. On a street where Asian and Southeast Asian thrives, and where there's a sizable southwest Indonesian population, there weren't any Indonesian places. Plus, she says, she heard that people in Berkeley like gamelan music.
Her hunches were correct. On various nights Jayakarta was sprinkled with diners who looked as if they might have been Indonesian, along with students hunched over nasi, rice plates, and a whole lot of gamelan-loving Berkeleyites, all gray beards and hand-knitted scarves, on trips of culinary discovery. There's a lot to discover, and like those guys who drove in from the big city, I'd rack up some miles to do it, too. Irianti Jin's cooking is the kind a person would long for.
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