Sunday, August 15, 2010

Eating at Payon, South Jakarta

Indonesian food is a food of the village, the home, and the roadside stall; it is not a cuisine that always lends itself to fancy upmarket restaurants. There are few establishments I have found that succesfully balance the rugged, vibrant heart and soul associated with the cuisines of tropical Asia with the refined presentation that is usually expected of modern fine dining. Payon is one that achieves such a balance. "Modern" though is a concept open to interpretation, and this restaurant's approach invokes the past as a way into the future.
It seems slightly incongruous with its surrounds, an oasis of high Javanese tradition midst the hustle and bustle of the trendy Kemang area of South Jakarta. With a design modelled after the living compounds of the Javanese aristocracy, the attention to detail is amazing. It's open-plan garden setting does have a drawback though; mosquitos can sometimes be a problem, and it's best to come equipped for that.

The menus are a cute touch.

Payon's food is Javanese and Sundanese. The freshness and quality of the produce used stands out in comparison to what you often find in Indonesia, and the kitchen knows how to get the most out of its raw ingredients. One thing the chefs are hardly shy about is their use of chili, using freshly-pounded sambals that are often searingly hot. To a Western palate, this spiciness might come across as heavy-handed, but that is part of its authenticity. They will certainly give you an option as to how hot you want it, however.

Above: ikan bakar (grilled fish). Below: lencak payon. This is one of the more unusual dishes, and one of my favourites. It is an example of how poor-people's food can be elevated to something of magnificence. Its main ingredient is oncom, a mold-fermented soybean product derived from the leftover sediments from the manufacture of tofu. It is sauteed with spices and contrasts with the slightly bitter kick of lencak (which I think are pea eggplants). A fascinating dish that I've not seen elsewhere.

Below: sambal prawns. It is the little touches that impress me in presentation, such as the mortar made from volcanic stone it is presented atop.

Above: tempe penyet. Below: tahu penyet. Penyet means "smashed" or "flattened", and in this case the tempe (fermented soybean cake) and bean curd are fried, pressed and dressed with a sweat-inducing sambal.

Above: kacang panjang (long beans). Below: bayam (spinach). Both these dishes are simply stir-fried with garlic, shallots, chili and galangal, and display real respect at work for the integrity of the fresh ingredients.

One area which is something of a let-down is dessert, the selection of which is somewhat uninspiring in comparison to the main dishes. On the night in question, we were also informed that many of their vegetables had run out; despite the wide variety of dishes pictured above, there were at least 5 other things we asked for which they didn't have available. These included some of the very distinctive dishes like sambal petai, and stir-fried kecipir (four-angle bean).

By local standards, Payon is somewhat expensive for Indonesian food, but by Western standards it is still amazingly cheap.

My love affair with Indonesian food has been reignited.

Payon, Kemang Raya No. 17, Jakarta Selatan DKI Jakarta. PH 1: (021) 719-4826

See also:

Chinese donuts on a Yogya roadside - the best breakfast ever

Malaysian "carrot cake" - not quite what you'd expect

My encounter with dog meat in Eastern Indonesia

Terengganu cuisine

Penang's famous mung bean cookies

Lina's Popiah, SS3, Petaling Jaya

Ethiopian food at Cafe Lalibela

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