Foodie blogs have been hot on Hardena, an authentic Indonesian restaurant on Hicks Street near Morris, in South Philly. It's described as a veritable hole-in-the-wall with an atmosphere that makes you feel as if you are in someone's Indonesian home.
I decided to give it a try. But first, I wanted to make a related stop a little farther south, on Snyder near 17th, for the Indonesia Restaurant.
After several years of operation in Chinatown, Indonesia relocated to its present location. While hard-core foodies may consider it less adventuresome both in atmosphere and menu, Indonesia offers familiar chicken as well some more exotic dishes (including several frog options and oxtail-tendon soup).
Although - you have to admit - frog tastes like chicken.
The islands of the Republic have had many influences through trade and colonization, creating different styles rather than one cuisine.
Indonesia's general manager and the son of one of the ownership partners, Indra Santoso, says that most of the menu is Eastern Java style, which leans toward a sweeter and spicier flavor system. The menu also features several Madura-style dishes from the island that's a short distance from Java.
One of my favorite appetizers was Tahu Berontak, or Uprising Tofu ($3), best described as standup in taste and presentation. Wedges of tofu were fried with such a crisp crust we wondered if it was battered. Sweet soy sauce, which has a flavor and consistency reminiscent of molasses, made the perfect dipping sauce.
The Lumpia spring roll ($3), basically a spring roll with bamboo shoot, carrot and dried shrimp, was good, but I've had better versions at Filipino restaurants.
The Chicken Satay ($6.50) was some of the best I've had. A nicely grilled char paired with the peanut sauce like jelly in a PB&J.
Another favorite was Gado Gado ($7), a salad of cabbage, steamed bean sprouts, tofu, egg, rice and peanut sauce. It was served with shrimp crackers that rivaled potato chips for that salty, fatty, satisfying crunch.
I'm always a little hard pressed to get my five servings of vegetables in a day, but Cah Kangkung Bawang Putih ($8) went a long way toward helping me catch up. This Asian spinach sauteed with garlic had a slight sweetness that offset the bitterness found in most dark greens. Don't expect anything like our tender spinach leaves; this is a slightly sturdier version.
I think we were too full by the time we got to the Ayam Bumbu Rujak ($6.50) to truly appreciate it. This barbecued chicken in sweet red-bell-pepper sauce with coconut milk seemed a little dry, but I did enjoy the pairing of the coconut milk and red bell pepper.
One hallmark of Indonesian cuisine is sambal, a variety of sauce condiments that are usually based on chili peppers. My favorite version was the Sambal Pencit ($4), a mango mixture with shrimp.
Another Indonesian tradition is Rijsttafel rice table, an elaborate buffet that has its origins in Dutch colonization. According to Santoso, the restaurant did offer an authentic Rijsttafel at one point and might bring it back.
Outside the Manhattan area, I think you'd be hard pressed to find Rijsttafel, so I hope Indonesia Restaurant revives the tradition.
Ever since the Food Network's Anthony Bourdain made the stinky durian fruit famous, I've had a hankering to try it. Sweet enough to be dessert, Durian Juice ($3.50) lived up to its reputation - an odd aroma followed by a delicious and somewhat addictive taste.
A perfect end to an Indonesian journey.
But for real Indonesian adventure, you have to check out Hardena. It's true, Hardena is like being transported to this cluster of islands roughly the size of New York state. And, while I found several dishes to rave about along with the bloggers, some were authentic beyond my palate.
Raves included tender chunks of lamb sweetened with coconut milk (Gule Kambing), an eggplant dish with an amazing texture (Terong) and a divine pink beverage (Es Teler) that is chock full of lychee, jackfruit and coconut. The vegetable fritter (Bakwan) was light, crispy and - word to food trucks - would be great as a street food snack.
All were worth a return trip while I hone my palate to be more comfortable with some of the dishes that are heavy on fish sauce. In particular, I need a more gradual introduction to the squid preparation, which had such a strong fish aroma and flavor that I was lost. Two people can have a feast under $20, however, so I have incentive to get up to speed. *