Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Ayam What Ayam


Don't you just hate those cutesy, punning restaurant review headlines?

All right, ayam is Indonesian for chicken, and this piece is about Indonesian food.

I love Indonesian food, but until recently there weren't any especially good Indonesian restaurants in New York. The one in Brooklyn is horrendous, and the three in Manhattan are nothing to write home about, though Bali Nusa Indah, on Ninth Avenue, will do in a pinch.

In the last several years a number of Indonesian restaurants, both Sumatran and Javanese, have opened in Queens, the borough that could stand on its own as the most diverse ethnic restaurant city on the east coast. I rarely get to Queens, despite its many temptations. Living in Brooklyn, working in Manhattan, and not owning a car, I kept making excuses not to make the trek. In recent months I've remedied that in a systematic fashion. I contacted a group of friends and we agreed to a monthly Queens dinner outing.

The first three have been to Asian restaurants: Sripraphai, the most raved-about Thai restaurant in the city; Spicy and Tasty, the Sichuan restaurant in Flushing that was recently awarded two stars by the Times' Frank Bruni; and Minangasli, a tiny Indonesian place in Elmhurst. I haven't written about the first two. Sripraphai was excellent, but I didn't have anything to say that hasn't been said already. Spicy and Tasty was quite good too, but I feel I need a wider sample of dishes before I commit. I will tell you about Minangasli.

It's a tiny place in a neighborhood bustling with Asian restaurants, and the cuisine is Sumatran. Sumatran food is one of the most popular cuisines in the vast nation of Indonesia. I've never been to Sumatra, but you'll find Nasi Padang restaurants all over Bali and Java. Padang, Sumatra's largest city, is famous for its incendiary cuisine. Nasi means rice in the Indonesian language (Bahasa Indonesia), and Nasi Padang restaurants are usually humble places that will serve you a plate of rice with your choice of a number of prepared dishes. Nasi Padang was, I believe, the inspiration for the more formal, genteel Dutch-Indonesian Rijsttafel.

Minangasli serves a la carte, but the food is Padang-style. Six of us dined there, so we had the chance to sample a bunch of dishes. A number of them were indeed spicy, but somewhat less hot than those prepared by Nasi Padang places in Indonesia. It's pretty hard to find Southeast Asian cuisine in the U.S. that maintains the spice level of the home country, even in "ethnic" neighborhoods.

The most popular dish with my group was the ayam balado, shown above. It's fried chicken with a fresh red chili sauce. I don't know how, or if, balado differs from sambal, as the sauce is known in other Indonesian and Malaysian restaurants. The chicken itself was incredibly moist, plump and flavorful, and the sauce had a flavor complexity that gave it dimensions other than heat.

A favorite Indonesian dish of mine, which we ordered as an appetizer, is martabak, sometimes spelled murtabak. It's a thin pancake stuffed with a mixture of chopped meat, egg, green onions and cilantro. Mianangasli makes theirs with beef, but I believe some I've had in Java were made with lamb. The martabak was tasty, but I prefer one that is more meaty than eggy. A better version can be found at Philadelphia's Indonesia Restaurant.



Our lamb satay was pretty good, but the skewers were already swimming in a spicy peanut sauce when they arrived. I prefer satay with sauce on the side. The beef rendang was a standout. This dry curry dish is a cornerstone of both Indonesian and Malaysian cuisine. I was a big fan of the jackfruit stew in a coconut milk sauce, but it met with mixed reviews from my friends. The one real dud was a steamed snapper that came out rather soggy and was served with an unexceptional sauce on the side. We also had an udang (shrimp) balado that didn't commune with the sauce as well as the chicken did, and ayam gulai, chicken in a coconut milk sauce that, while good, was not up to the standard of the best items.

There's no question that Minangasli is far superior to any of the Indonesian restaurants in Manhattan. Now I have to try some of the other Queens Indonesian places to see where it stands in the majors.

Minangasli is at 86-10 Whitney Avenue, Elmhurst.

Minangasli on Urbanspoon

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh my, my mouth is watering... Shame I'm living in France, otherwise I know where I'd go for dinner tonight! (The french cuisine is overrated in my opinion. They only know how to do a good steak with cream sauces and fries)

I wonder if there are any indonesian restaurant around here? Yellow pages might be able to tell me.

I loved your post. Very informative =)

11:31 AM  
Blogger Peter Cherches said...

Astrid, while I can't share your lack of enthusiasm for French cuisine, I'm glad your mouth is watering for Indonesian food. I would assume a few Indonesian restaurateurs decided to leave Holland and give France a go. If not, hop on the TGV to Amsterdam or Den Haag.

5:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

well actually balado means "with chili". lado itself is padangnese for chilli. Anyway i wonder if there is indonesian restaurant serving tuna's head boiled in coconut milk there. Actually it is favorite menu in most indonesian food in its hometown, padang.

5:33 PM  

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