Leaning on the bar at Yanti's Restaurant & Bar on Dairy Ashford, I watch my buddy Jay ladle the Indonesian hot sauce called sambal olek out of a glass jar and spread it onto an oversize shrimp chip. The small order of krupuk, as the airy seafood chips are known, includes three tostada-size crisps delivered hot out of the fryer.
"When I was living in Holland, this was as close as I could get to chips and hot sauce," Jay says with his mouth full and his head cocked nostalgically to one side.
When we walked in the front door, we opted to sit at the bar. It was about seven thirty on a hot spring evening, and the dining room was still too bright. Every white linen-covered table sat drearily empty. Meanwhile, the invitingly dark bar offered the society of other customers and a cute barmaid. So we sat down and ordered a couple of beers.
Yanti's Restaurant 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturdays.
Beef sate: $6
Nasi with goat: $8
Bakmi with shrimp: $9
The bar looks like a den, with mahogany paneling and sofas along the back walls. A muted television is tuned to the soundless talking head of Bill O'Reilly. I borrow the remote and change the channel to ESPN News, a move that raises the eyebrows of the other pair of guys seated at the bar. Up until now, they've been engrossed in whispered conversation about a big deal.
Then I notice the gilded legend above the bar itself: "East Asia Petroleum Club." Houston oilmen are real comfy with Indonesia, continuing to get contracts there even after the ouster of their corrupt old friend, President Suharto, in 1998.
Slowly the bar scene comes into sharper focus. I turn and notice a bunch of little squares on a back wall, which upon closer inspection turn out to be a montage of oil company logos -- little tokens of affection from Unocal, Halliburton and the dozens of other oil companies that party in the Indonesian oil fields.
Hey, isn't that the former president's playboy son, Tommy Suharto, playing bridge at that table in the back? When did he get out of prison? If the Fox News fans at the bar question me, I decide to claim that I'm from Langley, Virginia.
"Indonesian food is the Tex-Mex of Holland," Jay tells me, lost in his reverie of The Hague. The sambal tastes a bit like crushed chile sauce mixed with ketchup. And the shrimp chip, while only vaguely suggestive of seafood, has an amusingly stiff texture -- kind of like a crispy fried pork skin, only saltier and greasier. Given enough cold beer, I could munch on these in a dark, cool bar for quite some time.
But I abandon the krupuk and sambal when another snack appears. Batagor, an appetizer of tofu cubes stuffed with fish paste, deep-fried and dotted with hot peanut sauce, sounds weird and tastes sensational. Jay and I have a fork duel over the bowl as we each try to get the lion's share -- which is odd, since for the most part I don't even like tofu.
The Thai bartender, a young woman named Vi, takes a break from the video pool game she's playing to get our other appetizer plate from the kitchen. This one is called sate daging, tender beef chunks grilled on wooden skewers and slathered with a thick and creamy peanut-and-chile sauce. Nothing goes better with a cold beer than a hot steak covered in peanut butter and chiles, I always say.
There are two distinct classes of Indonesian restaurants in Holland, says Jay. There are fancy Indonesian restaurants where you eat rijsttafel (a Dutch word meaning "rice table") and cheap hole-in-the-wall spots that cater to students and partyers, he says. The cheap joints serve wok-fried-rice dishes called nasi and noodle dishes called bakmi. He orders a nasi with chunks of goat meat and a noodle dish with shrimp called "bakmi goreng old fashion." The goat meat is tough and sinewy, and the shrimp are tiny and scarce. Both dishes are very greasy and drenched in soy sauce.
"That's the way they're supposed to taste," Jay says with a smile. "Starch, grease and lots of soy sauce." Well, maybe this isn't really the way the food tastes in Jakarta -- after all, he's never been there. But it's the way the Dutch like their Indonesian food.
Indonesia was a Dutch colony for more than 300 years. There was never a unified cuisine that spanned the nation's 13,000 islands. Rather, the various immigrants borrowed from their Thai, Chinese, Indian, Javanese, Malaysian and Balinese cultures, among others. The dishes of all these ethnic groups were never combined until Dutch plantation owners served them together in the smorgasbord called a rijsttafel.
On Dutch plantations, as many as a hundred dishes from all parts of the country would be displayed for an Indonesian rijsttafel feast. Each diner got a portion of rice and then selected samples from the assembled delicacies. Today, the multicultural menus of Indonesian restaurants in the United States and Europe are reflections of the rijsttafel's mishmash of ethnic foods. It's the Indonesian combination dinner, to borrow Jay's Tex-Mex metaphor.
Yanti's offers two ways to order rijsttafel. For one diner, there's "rijstafel old fashion," which starts with chicken soup and includes rice and seven dishes plus shrimp crackers and pickles. It's a great deal for $20.
The standard rijsttafel is the thing to get if several diners want to share. On a previous visit, three of us ordered it and were delighted to find that the parade of dishes cost us a mere $10 apiece. Each patron gets a bowl of the rich chicken noodle soup called soto, followed by an ordinary egg roll. The shared dishes start with the chicken sate. Unfortunately, this is not as interesting as the beef sate. The chicken meat just can't stand up to the overwhelming flavor of the peanut sauce.
Chicken simmered in a yellow curry sauce is much more to our tastes. Gado-gado, a cold mélange of boiled vegetables and peanut sauce -- which my dining companions keep referring to as "the salad," since there are a few lettuce leaves on the plate -- goes quickly. The standout of the rijsttafel dishes is probably the redang, big chunks of long-cooked beef in an intricate Asian curry sauce.
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"Garuda was the name of my favorite Indonesian restaurant in Holland," Jay tells me. It was decorated with potted palms and ferns, he says, and you sat in those giant peacock chairs. The old Dutch colonialists would go there in the afternoon to drink tea and eat rijsttafel until nighttime. "I always imagined these gray-hairs were talking about how many servants they had back in Indonesia," he says with a chuckle.
Yanti's is everybody's favorite Indonesian restaurant here (actually, it's the only Indonesian restaurant in Houston that I know of). Take some friends and try the rijsttafel. It's a great way to get a sampling of Indonesian dishes, and the dining room is really quite comfortable.
But the truth is, I had a lot more fun eating krupuk and sambal and drinking beer in Yanti's dark, cool bar. I highly recommend the bar side of the business as a place to hobnob with former spies, old Asia hands and Suharto amigos.