One of my happiest food-tripping memories is of the morning Cat and I spent munching our way down Jakarta's Sabang foodie district. Since then I'd have a craving ever so often for some hot Indonesian food. Now there's an answer to my cravings just five minutes walk from my house.
The newly-opened Pawon Ageng, which owner Ng Sardjono tells me means 'Big Kitchen,' occupies a two-lot property on the corner of Djakarta (what a coincidence) and El Grande; I literally pass it every time I go to work. First impressions: from the distinctive decor and the extensive menu advertised on banners outside, I was guessing the owner was either a Filipino who'd stayed long enough in Indonesia to go native, or more likely a real Indonesian. Bingo - the owner is indeed an Indonesian, married to a Filipina (and a Locsin from Silay City at that, which means she and Cat may even be related; talk about surprises!). The facilities are not air-conditioned, (they are now; with an al fresco dining at the front) but pleasantly laid out across a spacious patio and the interior of the property's original bungalow. And good news for customers -- this restaurant has parking enough for a dozen or so cars.
I arrived before Cat, having come straight from work, and being extremely hungry, I immediately ordered some Sate Ayam Madura. I got five sticks of very tender chicken, smothered in freshly-made peanut sauce with real crunchy peanuts. A definite winner, and necessitating an immediate order of San Mig Lite. In a way, that makes this place a level up from Sabang - I can get San Mig! And how was the sate? It didn't survive long enough to be photographed! As a side note, this sate isn't hot, so it's a safe order for kids and the spice-fearing among us.
Ayam Goreng Mentega
Once Cat and my dad arrived -- one of the few occasions we were able to tease Dad into going out with us -- we polished off the remaining sate and ordered our main meal. We tried the Tahu Isi, a sort of beancurd fritter fried to a crisp golden brown and stuffed with mixed vegetables; the classic beef Rendang, a beef curry cooked until its coconut cream-based sauce dried into a nutty, slightly smoky-tasting crust; Ayam Goreng Mentega, fried chicken in Indonesian-style lemon butter sauce; Udang Bakar, prawns dredged in sweet kecap manis before being barbecued in their shells; and Cah Kangkung, a fiery stir-fried kangkong dish. Though Pawon Ageng's five kinds of Nasi Goreng, Indonesian fried rice, were among its best-sellers we opted for plain
rice to get the full savor of our viands.
We all loved the Tahu Isi, relishing the freshness of the tofu and its crunchiness. Definitely great beer food, and not too spicy by itself (I dipped mine in one of the chili-onion-soy dips provided with the prawns). The Ayam Goreng Mentega is also safe for those with low chili tolerance, a hearty and familiar-feeling dish with a lemon butter sauce that is flavorful yet not overly rich. Cat and I liked the flavor of the Udang Bakar, but it seems the way it was cooked made the shells stick to the flesh and a bit hard to peel off. (Mr. Sardjono explained that the prawns have to be cooked in their shells to avoid burning them.) I really enjoyed the Cah Kangkung, its heat a pleasant surprise -- I was crunching slices of red chili with almost every bite. Yum!
The star of the show for us though was the Rendang. This was real rendang the way I remembered it from our Jakarta trip, cooked to dry nutty crustiness, its flavor a complex cascade of exotic Indonesian spices. On finishing our dinner, we found out some of the secrets behind this heavenly rendang from Ng and his son, Lawrence. Pawon Ageng is all about delivering an authentic Indonesian experience, Lawrence says, and so dedicated to this cause are the Sardjonos that they even grow some of the necessary ingredients in the restaurant's gardens and at their home. What they can't grow or source locally, they bring in through a family member who regularly visits Jakarta. No wonder then that we cleaned our plates.
Pawon Ageng opened in October 2010, and since then has been attracting a small but steady stream of customers specially in the evenings when the garden dining area is at its best. The Sardjonos are slowly adding more treats from their homeland as the business grows, so expect to be able to savor yet more exotic treats here in the future. The funny thing about our visit to Pawon Ageng? Dining here didn't quell my craving for Indonesian food -- it's sharpened it! Terima Kasih, Mr. Sardjono!
I got to visit Pawon Ageng last Friday to meet a friend, and driven by curiosity, I ordered one of the dishes marked on the menu as very hot. This was the Ayam Goreng Rica Rica, pronouched "richa-richa," a fried leg quarter of chicken smothered in a sauce of sauteed fresh tomatoes, onions, spices and chilis. Fire in the hole! Lawrence, son of Ng Sardjono and manager of the restaurant, assured me what I got served was a somewhat tamed version of the dish, with less chilis than what they normally have. Still, it was hot! It was good! And did I say it was hot? I'm now putting this dish on my personal list of comfort foods. The sauce was rather reminiscent of a traditional Pinoy sarciado, the tomatoes fried until they into a flavorsome paste, but with that unmistakably Indonesian blend of spices. Tip: if you're going to order this one, order a milky fruit shake or have ice cream or froyo afterward; the milk will put out that fire.