Anyone who says malls don’t serve good food hasn’t been in Jakarta long enough. The grub at Jakarta’s higher-end malls takes things well beyond the food court standard, showing that taste extends beyond the four (air-conditioned) walls of its confines.
One establishment that has consistently aimed above its shopping-center level is Chandara Thai restaurant in Plaza Senayan. Chandara is part of the Jittlada group, a chain with Thai restaurants in seven locations around the city, all housed within malls.
Chandara is the fine-dining representative of the chain, now with a branch in Plaza Indonesia as well as Plaza Senayan, and is a little pricier than some of its cousins like White Elephant in Cilandak Town Square and Jittlada in Pondok Indah Mall. But it has something to show for the price difference with its greater range of menu items and prettier portions.
Cornered by gourmet grillhouse Rustique and esteemed Italian restaurant Avorio, Chandara has some keeping up with the neighbors to do in this growing fine-dining corner of Plaza Senayan.
The branch steps up with a lavish interior decorated in tones of royal blue and maroon, and chandeliers made of wine glasses. The glasses overhead are ominously empty, but wine-lovers, never fear — there is a good selection of imported bottles on hand to fill them up.
Now 18 months since it opened, the venue is already showing some wear. But one thing that still shines at Chandara is the food.
Chandara employs a Thai chef, referred to affectionately by the staff there as “Mama,” who serves up the authentic flavors of her homeland with a modern flair.
Thai cuisine is often overlooked in Indonesia, where diners assume that the flavors are too close to home to be anything exciting. Judging by the watery attempts at tom yam served up by too many cafes in Jakarta, that assumption may generally hold true.
But for those who want a real taste of Thailand’s rich and surprising cuisine, Chandara is not a bad place to start. The restaurant goes to the effort of using rare ingredients like knobbly kaffir limes, bitter turkey berries and raw betel vine leaves to ensure an authentic experience for its diners.
And the extra effort shows. The tom yam goong here is anything but watery — in place of the nondescript MSG taste found in too many a “Thai” soup, Chandara’s version of the classic dish is filled with a strong tomato flavor, with added kicks of sour lime and bright coriander. Each bowl contains a halved king prawn, with flesh too firm to be frozen. The fresh pickings in each shell soak up the balanced broth, as do the juicy paddy-straw mushrooms.
Another interesting starter is the yam so o, a pomelo and chicken salad. The gargantuan pink citrus fruit is broken up and tossed with fried shallots, wrinkled chilies, dessicated coconut and thinly sliced chicken. The resulting dish looks something like a pile of sawdust, but when eaten, the capsules of pomelo juice explode into the mix, keeping the salad tart and tangy.
For main course, the pla krapong takrai, or lemongrass sea bass, provides similar flavors. The presentation is impressive — the whole fish is deep-fried, split open with tail intact on a platter of betel leaves and spread with a chunky tamarind jam made from lemongrass, red onion, peanuts, lime and sugar. The sweet, sour and salty flavors are well-balanced, but the jam is ultimately too thick to moisten the over-fried fish.
A better choice for main course is the gang gwio warn gai, or green chicken curry. Thai food lovers know that the difference between an average curry and an excellent one is all in the paste. Chandara makes its own curry pastes from raw ingredients, and diners will taste the difference.
The green chicken curry at Chandara is thick and flavorsome, with coconut cream marbled over the top. Wedges of eggplant and lime float to the surface, while deeper down, tender chunks of chicken can be found stewing in the flavors. Bruised basil leaves bring out the delicateness of the spices, bringing balance to an otherwise rich dish. The fillings taste great, but it is the sauce that will have diners eating the curry with every last grain of rice on their plates.
For dessert, Thai cuisine has some weird and wonderful offerings. Chandara is soon to launch an afternoon tea set seemingly tailored for Facebook uploads, including pretty mung-bean jellies shaped like chili peppers and a fudgy goose egg and coconut slice with an unusual topping of fried shallots. There is also the fak thong sangkaya, a coconut custard served inside a wedge of sweet, boiled pumpkin. Suffice to say, it tastes better than it looks.
The biggest surprise of all is the coffee, not served in the traditional Thai way similar to Indonesia’s kopi tubruk, but instead brewed in a professional espresso machine. Topped with a thick crema, the Italian-style coffee here is better than that served in many of the city’s cafes, which just goes to show — you can’t judge a mall by its food court.