It would be disrespectful to consider satay just another kind of kabob. Though it consists of meat threaded onto a skewer, satay carries the additional burden of serving as a culinary ambassador. Quick: Name another Indonesian dish. I didn’t think you could.
So why is it that at Satay Sarinah, an Indonesian restaurant that’s staked its identity on skewered meat, I can never get a staffer to recommend the signature dish? It’s not that advice is hard to come by—an Indonesian restaurant would never survive if it weren’t willing to offer guidance. Before Sarinah’s proprietors, the Pribadi family, changed the restaurant’s name and moved it to Alexandria, they enjoyed a 14-year run in Georgetown with the Sarinah Satay House. And despite their long tenure on tourist row, the Pribadis show none of the behavioral tics common among Asian restaurateurs who’ve had to live off the dime of egg-roll-centric Americans. At Sarinah, diners aren’t steered toward the dishes that they’re supposed to understand; they’re urged to live a little.
Or a lot. The rijsttafel is a traditional Indonesian dinner production that spans five courses but feels like more. At $21.95, it is by far the priciest thing on the menu—the majority of Sarinah’s entrees cost less than nine bucks—but gluttony pays dividends.
The feast begins with a crunch—namely, a bowl of wedding soup bolstered with a couple of floating fried wontons, and a choice of egg rolls or kroket kentong, fried rods of fluffy mashed potatoes formed around a pocket of ground beef and vegetables. The platter that follows is groaning with tapas-size portions of dishes culled from all over the menu. The spice range runs from vaguely sweet (lamb satay slathered in mild peanut sauce) to slow burn (currylike chicken in coconut milk) to two-alarm hot (fried shrimp painted with fire-engine-red chile paste, and rendang daging, the traditional beef stew).
There’s something almost Midwestern about some of the rijsttafel—fried green beans, for example, smack of Green Giant, and Indonesian “pickles” are really a tart mix of Wisconsinesque farm vegetables—whereas other items almost defy comprehension. Take the egg in coconut sauce or, better yet, the shrimp chips: Think of Styrofoam cut into thin sheets. Now imagine those sheets tasting like fish.
Fans of the Georgetown location’s garden-quality atmosphere may shed a tear at the sight of Sarinah’s suburban incarnation. The restaurant occupies a one-room corner space at the end of a Van Dorn Street strip mall, and the interior is roughly as banal as the address. Granted, the restaurant is spanking-new, and the staff seems intent to keep it looking that way; one night, a waitress hardly gives my beer a chance to hit the floor before she starts cleaning up the spill. But as far as vibe goes, the dining room has the feel of a tiki bar with good lighting and no irony.
Yet I wouldn’t go griping to the Pribadis about Sarinah’s setting; they’ve kept the prices in check, and the cooking remains undiminished despite the suburban flight. The tug between the exotic and the familiar to be found in the rijsttafel is replayed in almost every order. Otherwise ordinary chicken soup is thickened with just a touch of coconut milk. Shrimp dumplings are a little mushy, although they’re cutely made to look like tiny jesters’ caps. Bogor-style fried chicken is so good that I would never even have thought to wish for it; before being fried crisp, the chicken’s soaked in a marinade until the meat’s flush with flavor and utterly tender. At first bite, a spicy plate of nasi goreng, the Indonesian fried rice, only whispers of heat, but halfway through the dish, you’ll be wishing there were still ice cubes in your water glass. Many of the marinated meat and poultry dishes have a similar effect. That lamb curry, with its thick gravy and seemingly benign cubes of meat, only looks like Dad’s stew; its spices are delicious, and regardless of how much beer you drink, they’ll still be dancing on your tongue when you get home.
So what about the satay? Let’s just say there’s a reason that the staff always points me elsewhere. None of the five versions are bad, but only the beef is suck-on-the-skewer sublime. Unlike the lamb and chicken, which arrive pre-sauced, the beef comes virtually unadorned, so you can taste the lemongrass-shallot rub and how it’s caramelized on the meat. Then there’s the meat itself: Sliced thin and cooked to a faint crackle, it warrants being ordered again and again. And you’ll never forget what it’s called or where you got it.
Sarinah Satay, 512-A South Van Dorn St., Alexandria, (703) 370-4313.
The reader who worships York Castle Ice Cream wasn’t thinking about my pepper-stricken tongue when she recommended its wares, although I’m thankful nonetheless. Nothing, except perhaps a pristine sorbet, brings the palate back to earth like a cool scoop of ice cream, especially one that’s homemade and derived from tropical fruit; mango, guava, and lychee are just a few of the flavors this mom-and-pop shop churns out. But fruit’s not the only attraction. The reader calls York’s chocolate ice cream sodas “the best the world has ever known,” and the mint chocolate chip is sharp, rich, and gloriously green. Look for pumpkin ice cream come fall.
York Castle Ice Cream, 9325 Georgia Ave., (301) 589-1616. —Brett Anderson
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