Rice Is Nice

The Indo Cafe is inviting, if more familiar than you'd hope.

Unless you were born on Bali, or at least spent a few weeks on the beach there, it's hard to read over the menu at Indo Cafe and know what to expect from dishes with names like "risoles" or "bakmi goreng jawa." Just writing "whole tilapia grilled on banana leaves" sends my imagination off to the set of Survivor. The guests I brought on my two visits pored over the menu, curiosity simmering, eager to see what the pictures on the menu tasted like. All of us pushed away our plates at the end saying, "Well! That was really . . . nice." Nice, nice Indo Cafe, located in the maze of shops that ring Northgate Mall, is in its second incarnation. Six months ago, Andry Sander and Laura bought the flagging two-year-old business from the couple that founded it, added traditional Indonesian elements to its bistrolike decor, and redebuted in late July. The young, friendly couple is conscious of running the only Indonesian restaurant in Seattle; on the menu they announce that they're donating a certain portion of their proceeds to relief work in Indonesia, and have picked out their favorite dishes to represent the country's vast, diverse cuisine. What gross generalizations can I make about the cuisine of a country with more than 17,000 islands, hundreds of languages, and countless ethnic groups? Holding to the food that Indo Cafe serves, I'd say it's milder than Thai, less pungent than Malaysian, sweeter than Chinese, and lighter than Filipino (but heavier than Vietnamese). Plot that on your taste buds and triangulate. Specimen No. 1: The empek-empek palembang ($6.95), a Thai-like fish cake stuffed with scrambled egg, presented floating in a light, sweet black-vinegar broth along with chopped cucumber and yellow noodles. Everything about the empek-empek sounds more exotic than it tastes, which is mostly mild, spongy, and sweet. Specimen No. 2: lemper ayam ($6.95), sticky rice precisely wrapped in banana leaves and molded into a small brick. Pick open the leaves, and lemongrass-tinged steam emerges. Bite into the sticky cake, and you hit spiced, shredded chicken. These were my two favorite appetizers. Much of the rest of the food we tasted had an aw-shucks approachability: sweet and not assertively seasoned, and for diners weaned on phad thai and General Tso's chicken, more familiar than we expected. The risoles ($4.95), which the menu calls "Dutch-Indonesian egg rolls," are, well, big, crispy rolls filled with very lightly seasoned ground chicken. Nasi goreng Indonesia (served with your choice of meat, tofu, or shrimp, $6.95) may have little fried crackers sticking out of it, but otherwise it's a straight-up, slightly darker version of fried rice. You like chow mein, too? You'll like bakmi goreng jawa (again with your choice of meat, tofu, or shrimp, $7.95), fat, stir-fried noodles that taste a little sweeter than the version you get at your local cheap Chinese, and a little spicier, too, thanks to pickled red peppers. I liked the peppers best, actually, and kept fishing them off the plate after everyone had had their fill. Then there was the peanut sauce, which pops up in a number of places. Once I tasted the siomay campur bandung (chicken-stuffed fried tofu and chicken meatballs covered in peanut sauce, $5.95) and the gado-gado (blanched vegetables, fried tofu, and hard-boiled eggs covered in peanut sauce, $6.95), I couldn't eat more than a few bites of it. The sauce tasted like what you'd get if you peeled the chocolate off a case of Reese's peanut butter cups. The same high candy quotient is the reason I haven't eaten anything pra ram at a Thai restaurant since 1997—I keep thinking there has to be more to peanut sauce than sugar: More spice. More garlic. More shrimp paste. Not that I'm a spice hog, but I liked best the food that showed some flash. Indo Cafe's sambal, for one. There's no one sambal in Indonesia, just as there's no one salsa in Mexico. The sambal that comes with the restaurant's ayam goreng mbok berek ($7.95), fried chicken showered in fried coconut, makes the dish come alive; it's like the one Tina Fey crack that can redeem the hour you've spent watching barely titillating SNL skits. The chicken legs were crunchy all the way through, but the meat and coconut were incidental, really, to the vivid red paste that you dab on them. Mostly peppers and vinegar, the paste was undergirded with a fishy funk that amped up the flavor to high. Plus, it had a slightly uncomfortable heat, which made us crave more rice. "Eat more rice!" is also what the kang kung cah terasi ($9.95) demands. "Kang kung" is "ong choy" is "Chinese water spinach"—and it's one of my favorite greens: hollow-stemmed, crunchy as all get out, perhaps a little too fibrous for its own good. Kang kung can take all the garlic, chiles, and shrimp paste you can throw at it—and Indo's cooks do throw a bit of the first two ingredients on their kang kung. Perhaps the most satisfying dish of my two visits was the pepes ikan ($13.95), a whole tilapia coated in herbs and ground candlenuts, a buttery, mild nut cousin to the macadamia. We enjoyed the tender flesh so much that we gingerly lifted away its lacy spine to scrape all the remaining meat from the banana leaf on which the fish was grilled. It suggested that there is more to Indo Cafe's food than eager- to-please fare. The room, remodeled into the kind of place you're happy to spend a few hours in, is bathed in lacquer red and jadite, the rich colors framed in big black beams. The sleek black tables in front are for grown-ups, the low tables and pillow seats in back for the rest of us. All in all, my meals at Indo Cafe reminded me of too many of my e-dates: big work-up over the vivid descriptions, a rousing flurry of messages, followed by a nice meal with no promise of passion. But the restaurant's nice Indonesian cuisine is priced inexpensively enough to inspire exploration and accommodate flubs. It's decorated attractively enough to serve as the setting for a date, passionate or no. And the charming owners only engender good will. I didn't feel the chemistry. But would you? jkauffman@seattleweekly.com

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