It often seems that eating authentic, traditional food in Jakarta is about striking a balance between pleasure and pain. My companion is prepared to endure oppressive heat, plagues of mosquitoes, and armies of busking street thugs just to enjoy a steaming bowl of her favorite thin broth with offal, by the side of the street in Blok M.
While not quite as bad as that, Trio restaurant, which looks rather dilapidated, faces a busy road and has no air-conditioning, is unlikely to entice patrons looking for a lavish dining experience. However, its food had been highly recommended, so my companion and I intrepidly decided to forgo comfort in pursuit of a fine feed.
Having opened in 1947, Trio on Jalan Cikini is one of Jakarta’s oldest restaurants. It appears that in the intervening 68 years, little has been done in the way of redecoration. Instead of windows, the Chinese-Indonesian eatery is fronted with a green security cage, giving the unique experience of dining in a prison cell or a giant hamster cage. The single-room space is illuminated by brutal white strip lighting. Half a dozen grubby ceiling fans whir ineffectually above the patrons. The restaurant has around 10 rectangular wooden tables with stained, plastic tablecloths. The waiters’ crumpled uniforms appear to be identical to those of Blue Bird taxi drivers.
On the occasion of my visit, the diners were a diverse group: young couples on a (not especially romantic) date, groups of middle-aged men talking animatedly and chain-smoking, and multi-generational family meals. Despite the fact it was a weekday, upon my arrival all of the tables were occupied, so my companion and I were forced to loiter on the street until one became available. After being seated, we had to wait for several minutes for the menu, because it was being perused by guests at another table. I could understand Trio’s unwillingness to invest in opulent decor, but its unwillingness to print more menus baffled me.
When the dog-eared and yellowing menu (the front cover of which had been colored in with a highlighter pen) was finally presented, I was astonished. Every page features the name of each dish in Mandarin and Indonesian followed by its price. That’s it. There is no description or picture of the dish and no English translation. However, the most notable thing was its length: it featured more than 300 dishes! Rather than wade through pages and pages of items, my companion and I asked the attentive waiter for some recommendations and he helpfully reeled off a list of their specialties. When we ordered all of the dishes he had mentioned — bebek panggang, ayam goreng mentega, kakap asam manis, nasi goreng kepiting, along with juice and a mandatory large Bintang — he raised an eyebrow but assiduously scribbled the order on his pad and took his leave.
While we waited for our food, I sipped my icy beer and surveyed the interior of the restaurant. Against the far wall behind a high wooden counter sat an elderly gentleman (presumably the owner) in a batik shirt with a breathtaking comb-over. He frantically hammered on the buttons of an ancient calculator to work out bills and change. Behind him were rows of cans and bottles and cigarettes, like a mini warung. On one of the walls was an ancient menu (featuring a much more manageable 20 items). The other walls are covered with photos of the restaurant’s signature dishes. I have never understood why restaurants insist on mounting pictures of their food on the walls; the color invariably fades, making the dishes appear gray and unappetizing.
When the food arrived, two things became immediately apparent: the pictures on the wall did not do the delicious-looking dishes before us justice; and we had ordered far too much food.
Trio does not serve individual a la carte portions; each dish was large enough for two or three hungry people. However, we were famished from the long wait, so we attacked our feast. The mountain of steaming crab-fried rice was fluffy and delicious; it had generous chunks of crustacean meat and was not brutally spicy.
The next dish we tucked into was the evening’s only disappointment. The skin of the crispy duck was perfectly seasoned and cooked, but there wasn’t much meat on the bird, making it hard work to eat. After a few minutes of tugging small morsels of chewy meat from between the bones, fat and cartilage, we gave up, pushed this plate to one side and moved on to less labor-intensive dishes.
The chicken in butter sauce was a much more satisfying proposition. The meat was tender and the rich, and fell off the bone. The thick sauce complimented it perfectly. By this stage, I was feeling dangerously full, but since the food was so good, I loosened my belt, undid the top button on my pants and continued to stuff myself.
The final dish we tackled was the snapper in sweet and sour sauce. The pieces of fish fillet had been lightly battered then fried before being slowly cooked with the sauce. It was spectacularly good, definitely the standout dish of the evening. The snapper was fresh and flaky while the sauce was far less stodgy than the red gloop that is sometimes served in Chinese restaurants. Despite our valiant efforts, we were forced to request a doggy bag of leftovers.
As I waddled from the restaurant into the sticky Jakarta night, I knew that this would not be my last visit. While it seems a little optimistic for me to work my way through their telephone directory of a menu (even if I came every week, it would take me two years!), I am eager to see whether the other dishes are up to the same standard of those I sampled.
Despite its inauspicious appearance, Trio offers some of the best Chinese food I have enjoyed in Jakarta. I suspect that 68 years from now, long after Kemang’s trendy hipster restaurants have closed down and been forgotten, this ugly green cage of an establishment will be serving the same food with the same admirable, blissful indifference to style or comfort.
The post Trio Restaurant: Quality Eats in the Most Unassuming Place in Jakarta appeared first on The Jakarta Globe.