Although there are plenty of Asian restaurants in California, it’s often a challenge to find something really authentic, especially when it comes to Southeast Asian cuisine.
So, when my friend Francesca told me about a pop-up dinner hosted and prepared by world famous Indonesian chef William Wongso at the Blu Jam Café in Brentwood, I knew we had to go. Joining Francesca and me for the dinner was my filmmaker friend, Jeany Amir, who is half Indonesian.
The dinner was prepared by Chef Wongso, the recipient of the 2017 Gourmand Award for World's Best Cookbook. He shared with us that, in a way, there was no such thing as Indonesian cuisine because of the nation’s sheer amount of cultural diversity. I loved that statement.
The food is as varied as its people, the cuisine like night and day from one culture to the next. Before each course, he talked about the food we were about to eat and exactly how to eat it.
And whatever one's dietary needs were, Chef Wongso was prepared to meet them. All we had to do was inform the waiter, and it would be taken care of. It really meant so much to me that Chef Wongso went the extra mile to make his dinner so inclusive.
Our first-course appetizer was a rojak, an Indonesian fruit salad. I’m not usually a fan of rojak as the ones in Malaysia tends to be quite sour, but this one wasn’t sour at all, and the unique seasonings made it very tasty. During the soup course, Chef Wongso directed us to drink the soup and not use a spoon. The soup came with a little cracker called a keropok. We were told not to dip the cracker in the soup, but to eat it first, and then drink the soup.
Then there was the pre-main course, which consisted of two fantastic dishes. First, the risotto, the classic Italian staple, but with a wonderful Asian twist thanks to the addition of coconut milk, chili, and herbs. It was out of this world. There was also a curry dish called gulai, which I ate like a soup. It was so delicious I nearly jumped out of my chair.
For the main course, there were several dishes, including a caramelized curry, grilled and marinated dishes with sweet Javanese chili spices, saté, yellow turmeric fragrance rice, and a mixed vegetable curry. Personally, I felt this course could have been better as my tempeh saté, which was substituted for the meat and seafood, was a bit too mushy for my taste.
For dessert we had sarikayo es cendol, a popular Indonesian cold dessert made up of coconut milk, Pandenus leaf extract, rice flour, and sugar.
Throughout the dinner, Chef Wongso made his rounds, chatting with us while we ate our food. I asked him if he had to tailor his cuisine to suit American tastes, and he said that everything was entirely authentic except for one adjustment; he reduced the spice.
He also talked about travelling nonstop to promote his cuisine and his award-winning cookbook, “Flavors of Indonesia.” It was Jeany who noticed that Chef Wongso wore his chef uniform emblazoned with the acronym “ACMI.” The acronym stands for “Aku cinta masakan Indonesia,” which means, “I love Indonesian cooking.” I was so touched by this sentiment as it shows how proud and passionate he is about his beloved native cuisine.
My deepest thanks to the incomparable Chef Wongso. I learned so much about Indonesian food. I still dream about his delicious gulai until today.
Next stop is the Wong Java House, which several Indonesian-American friends of mine have told me is not only very authentic but also very good. I cannot wait for this next culinary adventure and hope it will be as positive an experience as Chef Wongso’s delicious pop-up dinner was.