3937 Spring Grove Ave.
UPDATE 2009: This restaurant has closed.
A few weeks ago I met up with fellow blogger Food Hussy for a taste of Indonesia at Gajah Wong in Northside. I arrived just after their 5:30 p.m. opening time and walked into something of a time warp. The rustic dining room had a dusty wood-meets-Nag Champa incense smell that reminded me quite a bit of the hippy shop where I worked in college. The rattan chairs, goddess statues and miscellaneous, organic retail wares strengthened the groovy vibe.
We chose to dine outside in Gajah Wong’s patio area; a surprising oasis, especially considering the restaurant abuts a busy gas station near the corner of Spring Grove and Hamilton Ave. White pebbles, potted herbs and mature, leafy trees are interspersed with stone statues and twinkling fairy lights to create a calm welcoming impression. The pleasant atmosphere is capped off by a fabulous tiki-bar serving up a nice assortment of cocktails.
I was delighted to see Pimms #1 Cup listed on their drinks menu – I love Pimms and usually keep a bottle on hand from May to September because I think it is the perfect summer cocktail. It’s traditionally made with fizzy lemon, crushed mint, English cucumber, strawberries and slices of lemon and orange. The Pimms at Gajah Wong substituted Sprite for the fizzy lemon, but I’ll let that slide since it is difficult to source Schweppes Bitter Lemon soda, although a better substitution would be ginger ale since the sweetness in Sprite is a little overpowering. Still, I give them kudos for offering it, and had I not been driving I’d had ordered seconds.
I’d never had Indonesian cuisine before but a look through their online menu listed tofu so I figured I’d be in good hands. Their appetizer menu lists two veggie options: Gado Salad, consisting of mixed steamed veggies, tofu and egg; and a Vegetarian Indo Roll filled with tofu, lettuce, vermicelli noodles, carrots, cucumber and cilantro, served with peanut sauce on a bed of shredded cabbage. I opted for the roll and was pleasantly surprised that it was served fresh and cold. I was expecting a deep-fried spring roll, so it was a nice change of pace and an excellent starter for a warm summer evening.
Gajah Wong’s menu can be a little confusing for first timers. As someone unfamiliar with the food, I was unsure about choosing a sauce for the vegetarian option on the entrée list, and the server wasn’t very forthcoming with descriptions and suggestions. The vegetarian option is fried tofu ($15.50) served with a choice of sauce - there is Gudeg (jackfruit cooked in coconut milk, palm sugar, bay leaves and spices), Jave Kare (an exotic mix of blended chilies, nuts, spices and herbs pureed and sautéed with coconut milk) or Sambal Goreng (a mild sauce of sator nut, galangal root and java spices). The menu also lists a non-vegetarian fourth sauce (Adhun), which includes shrimp paste.
Since I’d never tried any of them and wasn’t getting any help from the server, I blindly chose the Jave Kare because it listed Java chilies - which the restaurant grows locally from imported Indonesian seeds - because I figured it would have a little bit of a kick to it.
How wrong could I be? Very. The dish wasn’t the least bit spicy and tasted strongly of coconut milk. I found it disappointingly bland. The entrées come with several traditional Indonesian sambals (dips) on the side, and luckily one of them packed some heat. Unfortunately they only serve a small amount of each sambal selection, which wasn’t enough to punch up the flavor of my dish to an acceptable level.
Each entrée comes with a side of yellow rice and a mixture of vegetables. My rice looked as though it had been compressed inside a cat food tin, but Food Hussy’s rice was hidden beneath a cone-shaped banana leaf, and when the cone was lifted off the rice retained it’s pointy, triangular shape. Fun!
Neither of us much cared for the vegetable mixture, which looked and tasted as though it had been cooked to the point of no return. I can’t even identify what vegetables they were because it was all a bit of a mushy mess. Maybe that is the way they are supposed to be, but I wasn’t impressed and left mine virtually untouched.
The restaurant offers a nice selection of desserts. Pictured is a slice of Kahlua Cake.
I thought the presentation of our dishes was more interesting than the actual food itself, but perhaps I chose unwisely. I’d like to revisit Gajah Wong and try something different before I completely write them off, but first impressions give the restaurant good marks for creativity and visual interest while the food is pricey and unremarkable.