A Night at Kaum Jakarta

Kaum's menu includes bebek betutu (center) and gohu ikan (top left).

Kaum’s menu includes bebek betutu (center) and gohu ikan (top left).

After opening in Hong Kong and Bali, the mod-Indonesian restaurant Kaum has just launched its flagship in Jakarta. Here’s a taster of what to expect.

 

Two years ago, while vacationing on the island of Ternate in eastern Indonesia, I had my first taste of gohu ikan. I’d read how this local specialty was touted as an Indonesian form of sashimi, with bite-size pieces of raw skipjack tuna in an aromatic mixture of lemon basil, shallot, and bird’s eye chilies. So imagine my disappointment to find the tuna completely cooked through.

Not so at Kaum Jakarta, the latest in a trio of modern Indonesian restaurants by the Potato Head group. Of all the dishes I sample on opening night, it’s the inspired take on gohu ikan that strikes me the most. The skipjack tuna here is beautifully raw—tossed in coconut oil, chopped bird’s eye chilies, and shallot, but also strands of pomelo, calamansi lime juice, and sprigs of mint and ginseng leaf. This version is every bit the gohu ikan I wished I had.

Lisa Virgiano, brand director at Kaum.

Lisa Virgiano, brand director at Kaum.

Kaum Jakarta occupies an enviable position in the leafy neighborhood of Menteng—within striking distance of the Hotel Indonesia roundabout but insulated from the din of its rush-hour traffic. Arriving patrons are greeted by the sight of a glass house framed by two refurbished colonial-era bungalows and a spice garden. Lisa Virgiano, Kaum’s brand director, points out the nostalgic furnishings and tiled tegel Jawa floor as she brings us into a restored bungalow. “We want people to feel as though they’ve come to their grandmother’s house. This is meant to be a comfortable place where diners don’t need to dress up.”

The main dining area, by contrast, takes the form of an industrial-chic hall, a soaring space bookended by a sleek open kitchen and a bar stocked with Indonesian vinyl records from the 1950s to 70s. There’s a dedicated area for temporary art installations, while the concrete back wall is cast with Dayak motifs.

But the star of the show remains Kaum’s authentic Indonesian fare, which relies on local, small-scale producers for its ingredients: keluak nuts harvested and fermented in Borneo, sea salt from Amed on Bali’s northeastern coast, soy sauce made in the central Jakarta neighborhood of Cideng.

The steamed rice, served in bamboo fiber baskets, is no exception. Virgiano explains that these grains are sourced from Magelang in Central Java, and prepared with traditional methods—no rice cookers are used in the kitchen. It’s all part of an effort to replicate the flavors that she and French-born executive chef Antoine Audran encountered on their cross-country research trips while developing the menu.

Ayam kampung berantakan, a signature dish at Kaum.

Ayam kampung berantakan, a signature dish at Kaum.

What Virgiano and Audran brought back has shone a spotlight on the diversity of Indonesia’s regional cuisines. Our table of six is unanimous in our adoration of the ikan bakar sambal dabu-dabu—a North Sulawesi specialty of grilled fish rubbed with tamarind and turmeric, served alongside a spicy sambal of diced fruit and vegetables. It’s best enjoyed with a sprinkling of Amed sea salt and fresh lime juice for an added layer of complexity.

Kaum’s toothsome, char-grilled sate maranggi from the West Javanese regency of Purwakarta is another highlight, thanks to the use of wagyu beef marinated in ginger, garlic, lesser galangal, and crushed peppercorns.

Making kue lumpur Sidoarjo.

Making kue lumpur Sidoarjo.

Mie gomak, a wok-fried North Sumatran noodle dish, is not to everyone’s liking, but the tart flavor transports me to the idyllic shores of Lake Toba—the place where I first encountered andaliman, a lemony, mouth-numbing relative of the Sichuan peppercorn.

Bebek betutu—tender steamed and roasted duck served atop spiced cassava leaves—is a well-executed Balinese classic, while the stir-fried baby cabbage with tauco (fermented soybean paste) speaks to the deep-rooted Chinese influence on the Central Javanese trading port of Pekalongan.

Dessert is a revelation on its own. With its custard-like texture and somewhat savory taste, the kue lumpur (“mud cakes”) from Sidoarjo are quite different to the denser, more popular variety of the snack. Virgiano tells us this is the original recipe sold by street vendors, and one likely inspired by the arrival of Portuguese egg tarts in centuries past.

I leave Kaum with a head full of stories I can’t wait to write down, and the knowledge that its mouth-watering dishes (not to mention the cocktails) warrant a return in the not-too-distant future. Next time, I’ll just have to order another round of gohu ikan.

Kaum Jakarta; Jl. Dr. Kusuma Atmaja No. 77–79; 62-21/2239-3256

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