Should I Satay or Should I Go?
Though its Ethnic Offerings Stand Alone, Indonesia House Doesn't Quite Stand Out
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You're in the International Cuisine Museum. Strolling through the Asian wing, each room representing a different regional or national cuisine--at least as we've come to know them in North America--you thoughtfully admire the multisensory displays, smugly ignoring the introductory and, for you, unnecessary wall text.
Then, you turn a corner and find yourself in a room you've somehow never been in before. This room has elements in common with other nearby rooms, but there are subtle differences that you can't quite identify. In the flavor case, you see coconut, lemon grass, nutmeg, and turmeric; there's a tribute to the art of stir-frying; and, in the center of the gallery, an enormous installation of white rice, piled into the shape of a cone. Everything is familiar, and the room is certainly pleasant, but you can't quite pinpoint your position on the culinary globe.
Welcome to Indonesia. Stopping now to read the wall text, you learn about the 325 ethnic and tribal groups that inhabit this nation of some 17,000 islands and 210 million people, and the many influences that its Southeast Asian neighbors, and later its Dutch colonizers, have had upon its cuisine. You leave the room slightly wiser, but despairing of ever being able to achieve the status of Indonesian-cuisine connoisseur.
This was not unlike the experience we had at Indonesian House, the area's first full-on Indonesian restaurant, which recently opened in the slightly below-ground location that was occupied for years by Donna's Towson outpost. Never an ideal restaurant space, its new tenants have installed in it wall-to-wall ruby red carpeting as part of a complete refurbishment that has resulted in an atmosphere of dispiriting genericness. Pretty but dull.
Most all of what we tried here was well-prepared and fresh-tasting, portioned out in the generous manner we've come to expect, if not demand, from American-style Asian restaurants. But never here did we really experience that high, that great "human happiness" produced by discovering for ourselves a new dish. Perhaps the singular aspects of Indonesian cuisine were too subtle for our palates, or perhaps we just ordered badly. The menu itself is fairly reticent about whatever regional cuisine(s) are in play and the component ingredients and spices of individual dishes. Neither was our server especially forthcoming with information and advice; when asked, for instance, what the dressing was on our complimentary salads, she responded, "Everybody likes it."
From a list of a dozen appetizers, we chose a vegetable curry pie ($3.25) and a pork satay with spicy peanut sauce ($4.95). The three small pieces of pie were fried to a light, golden crunch and filled with sweet greens. The satay, arguably the dish most widely identifiable as Indonesian, was fine here, but it didn't elicit a response from us like, "Oh, so this is satay." In hindsight, for a taste of something really new, we should have tried one of Indonesia House's soups--maybe the fish soup with pineapple ($4.95) or the chicken and vegetable nutmeg soup ($4.95).
Neither were we savvy enough to order any entrée that featured a sambal, the traditional Indonesian spice mix that has about as many variations as there are islands in Indonesia and is the true test and pride of an individual chef's talent. Next time we will.
Of the entrées we did try, we liked best the fried butter fish ($10.95) in turmeric sauce (other preparations featuring this tasty, oily fish use tomato, lime, and hot and sour sauces). The turmeric sauce was smooth and strong and the fish itself especially toothsome. A dish of curry shrimp and vegetables ($9.95) was enjoyable, though not particularly fiery, with plenty of fresh and vivid string beans and red peppers making an attractive presentation. It was slight overkill, then, to get an additional order of satuéed string beans ($7.95), though it would have been interesting to put this dish alongside its Szechuan cousin for comparison's sake.
A dish named nasik bubuk ($8.95) assembled coconut-flavored rice with slivers of dried anchovy and a choice of fried chicken or beef. We chose chicken, which turned out to be two wings with crunchy skin. Again, the redundancy factor: There was so much rice on the other dishes we tried that it was probably not the shrewdest idea to order up a separate rice-based dish, especially one with as little drama as this one. The tiny slivers of anchovy lended no flavor we could discern; the coconut flavor was pleasant but slightly too subtle for us.
We will return to Indonesia House, but definitely after another trip to the Cuisine Museum. Since the food here doesn't explain itself to you, or otherwise distinguish itself, a little advanced work can't hurt.
Smokin' Indo: email@example.com.