Batavia Aims to Make Indonesian Cuisine Approachable for Western Palates
At Batavia in Fort Lauderdale, it's OK to order one of everything on the menu. In fact, chef-owner Sandra Thadjudin encourages it.
Her new Indonesian restaurant occupies the easternmost stretch of Commercial Boulevard, just before the Intracoastal Waterway. When you consider food in this part of town, you might think of upmarket concepts like Kaluz, Bahamian hole-in-the-wall Sheila's Conch & Wings, or any of the ubiquitous chain eateries and dive pubs that dot the street's various strip malls.
Never would you think to find an authentic Indonesian restaurant here, hidden among a stretch of mismatched shops that also houses Edelweiss Bakery & Cafe, Mrs. Murphy's Pub & Grubb, and Fish Peddler East. Yet here sits Batavia, a family-run establishment Thadjudin opened in late February.
Batavia is a small operation. The dining room can seat no more than 30, three tidy rows of tables lining both walls and a strip of patio doors at the front. The room is decorated with several vibrant, colorful canvases, each donated by a local artist, a showcase that will change every few months. Rather than use white linens, tables are set using black tablecloths embroidered with a tropical print. A U-shaped bar at back seats only a few, serving wine and beer for now.
Alongside her son Pandu — who also works as a server at a busy Miami restaurant — Thadjudin does most of the legwork, daily shopping, sourcing exotic spices, cooking, and even helping to serve her guests.
The goal of all this hard work, she says, is to bring traditional Indonesian dishes to South Florida.
"I want people to experience this cuisine the way we eat it in Indonesia," says Thadjudin. "Being here, I feel sad because Indonesian food is not as popular. Our food is full of spice, and everything must be made from scratch."
Self-taught, yet well-versed in the South Florida restaurant scene, Indonesian-born Thadjudin first came to Miami in 1998. After working as a consulting chef for several Miami establishments, including South Beach's Nikki Beach, she opened her own establishment in 2001. It, too, was called Batavia, the original name given to the capital city of Indonesia — now Jakarta — during the country's Dutch colonial era. At the time, Batavia was nothing more than a food-court style eatery catering to the throngs of tourists off the city's busy Biscayne Boulevard. It closed in 2004, shortly after a new landlord tripled Thadjudin's rent.
Rather than look for a new location, she — along with her husband and two sons — relocated to San Francisco, where they worked together to open a coffee shop in 2005. In 2008, they expanded the concept and began offering Indonesian fare to their patrons.
When rising rental costs again forced them to close the doors, Thadjudin's family returned to South Florida to start over. They recently opened the latest incarnation of the original Batavia in late February, where a formal dining room is a decided step up from the casual setting the family once offered farther south.
Thadjudin claims Batavia is the first authentic Indonesian restaurant in South Florida, with a menu built from many of her family's recipes, handed down by her mother. These are meals made with hand-ground spices, including kencur (lili root), galanga (ginger's spicier, more peppery cousin), and kunyit basah (fresh turmeric). In Indonesia, such dishes often vary from region to region, says Thadjudin, depending on what local ingredients are most readily available.
At Batavia, you'll find Thadjudin's rendition of her mother's nasi rendang, beef slow-simmered for eight hours in a pot of coconut milk spiked with red pepper, garlic, onion, lime leaves, galanga, and daun salam (an Indonesian bay leaf that imparts an aromatic if slightly sour element). The meat is densely flavored, the sweet and savory elements from all the combined ingredients condensed into each balanced bite.
Lamenting that Indonesian food is not as familiar to Americans as some other Asian cuisines, Thadjudin has dedicated an entire menu to celebrate the bounty of rijsttafel. A relic from Indonesia's Dutch colonial period, rijsttafel is a Dutch word that translates to "rice table." Based on the Indonesian feast known as nasi padang, rijsttafel was a way for Dutch colonists to sample dishes from Java, Bali, Sumatra, and the country's numerous islands, each dish representing the multi-ethnic culture of the Indonesian archipelago.
Rijsttafel is not a single dish, but rather an entire meal consisting of a variety of small dishes served together, including meats and fish paired with rice and spice-packed condiments. Ordering it is a bit like ordering a prix fixe meal. While this style of eating remains popular in the Netherlands, where the Dutch continue to serve the Indonesian buffet, in the United States only a few restaurants offer the banquet-style meal.
For more traditional fare, Thadjudin cites various cultural influences in each of her recipes: the Middle East, India, China, Spain, and Portugal, to name a few. Dishes range from satay and sambal out of the mountainous Preanger region of West Java to the fiery, complex curries of Sumatra, and flavor-packed East Indies dishes like the fried rice dish of nasi goreng, deep fried prawn crackers known as kroepoek, and spicy chicken soup called soto ayam.
If none of this sounds familiar, don't be intimidated. Here, the idea is for you to have a little bit of everything all at once to see what resonates with your palate. The rijsttafel is Thadjudin's best performance, served four ways: Batavian, Indocin, hidangan laut (seafood), and vegetarian.
Batavian is the most traditional version and includes 17 dishes in all, starting with acar (crispy quick pickles) and kerupuk udang (a fresh-baked shrimp cracker), all the way through sambal goreng buncis (string beans in a spicy tomato sauce).
Order the Indocin rijsttafel for a lineup that pays homage to Thadjudin's family, who are of Chinese descent. It includes babi kecap, a sweet pork stew; and pangsit kuah, her own take on wonton soup.
If none of the prescribed rijsttafels suits you, an à la carte menu gives patrons the opportunity to order from a number of the appetizer-sized dishes. It starts with martabak (envelope-shaped crispy dough pockets stuffed with scallion and red onion) or perkedel jagung (homemade corn fritters served with sweet and sour sauce). Entrée-style dishes include a larger portion of that nasi rendang, served with a cone-shaped steeple of rice.
Dessert here is as exotic as the rest of the menu, and rife with coconut. The dadur gulung is a simple dish, palm-sugar-sweetened shredded coconut rolled into bright-green pancakes that Thadjudin pan-fries and colors with juice squeezed by hand from the pandang leaf. If your sweet tooth isn't up for that challenge, try the mellower black-rice pudding, which uses a long-grain rice that retains its crunchy texture. It's served with a few spoonfuls of velvety-smooth coconut cream that infuses into the pool of ink-black syrup that renders the dish more soup than solid.
Batavia isn't just the new kid on the boulevard. Thanks to Thadjudin's straightforward, simple presentation, it's also the new Asian restaurant that manages to be accessible to Westerners while still delivering the tradition and culture of Indonesian cuisine.
"I want people to come here and experience real Indonesian food the way it is meant to be served," says Thadjudin.
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