Sept. 03 (Jakarta Globe) Stepping through the doors of Dapur Babah Elite feels like stepping back in time. My friend Maria and I arrived an hour late, having battled through Jakarta’s traffic for more than two hours before she gave up, parked her car and we took motorcycle taxis the remainder of the way. But the bustle of modern Jakarta disappeared as we entered the restaurant, to find ourselves in an old-style tea shop, with antique tea sets, glass jars of cookies on the counters and photographs of distinguished Babah families on the walls.
Babah is the term used for the culture that resulted from the intermarriage of Chinese settlers and Javanese women during the Dutch colonial era. Babah cuisine was a fusion of both culinary traditions, with the addition of a Dutch influence.
Similarly, the decor of Dapur Babah is a melange of cultural influences, featuring antiques and artifacts from as early as the 17th century, and statues depicting Chinese, Hindu and Buddhist gods. Owner/designer Anhar Setjadibrata, who also owns Tugu Hotels and is an avid collector of Indonesian antiques, refurbished and decorated the two 1940s shop-houses in which the restaurant is located, creating a series of rooms all with their own unique atmosphere and fascinating stories.
The staff are well-versed in the history of the mementos and a visit to dine easily turns into an enjoyable history lesson.
Our visit was hosted by sales and marketing executive Meggie Windari, who graciously showed us through the various rooms, explaining the history behind the furnishings and photographs as we went. My favorites were the Tao bar with its mix of Indonesian, Hindu, Thai and Buddhist influences and the outdoor terrace, inspired by an early Babah kitchen.
Maria preferred the Chinese-inspired room, complete with a goddess to watch over it.
Meggie had ordered our meals for us and we started with fried tofu, served with petis — a sweet black shrimp paste — and acar — a spicy salad accompaniment containing cucumber, shallots and chili. The creamy tofu went well with the paste and was brought alive by the bite of the acar.
A chicken soup with galangal followed, also containing rice noodles, tofu, potato, tomato, Chinese cabbage and boiled egg. Served with kerepuk rambak — crackers made from cow skin — and sambal , this was similar to soto ayam but with the addition of Chinese flavors.
Both of us happily had seconds and this dish has become my favorite version of chicken noodle soup, and the one I’ll crave if I’m ever in need of a tasty pick-me-up. Maria, who is Javanese herself, said it tasted like a homemade soup to her — a great recommendation.
Our main meal was more of a fusion item, bringing the Dutch influence into the mix as well. Described on the menu as a “modified schnitzel of thinly-sliced rolls of tenderloin wrapped in minced shrimps with cheese in the middle, batter-fried in egg and breadcrumbs,” it was not a dish I would have chosen myself, fearing the flavors would not mesh.
Served with a tomato-based sauce, steamed vegetables and fries, the dish was well-presented but, unfortunately, not to the taste of either of us. The minced mixture surrounding the meat lacked an identifiable flavor and the sauce was overpowering.
We rounded off our meal with a shaved ice dessert, a refreshing mix of fruits, including baby coconut, and avocado in a sweet syrup.