The laidback fine-diner reexamines Indonesian flavors and local produce from a global perspective.
In late 2021, when international travel was still off the cards, my best friend and I drove from Jakarta — where we both live — into the highland regency of Garut. What I remember most fondly was the archetypal West Java landscape of forested mountains and golden rice paddies, rustic meals prepared with farm-fresh produce, and the cool night air as we sipped on bajigur — a sweet, comforting drink scented with ginger and pandan. Somehow, sampling a cup of java made from the local beans never figured on the itinerary.
I briefly contemplate why that was toward the end of a 14-course dinner at August, the Jakarta fine-dining restaurant that has turned heads since it opened in the Sudirman Central Business District 17 months ago. Garut coffee happens to be the star ingredient in a carefully assembled signature dessert, which elicits oohs and aahs among my tablemates. This inspired creation plays off different textures and temperatures: a creamy sauce of palm sugar and coconut nectar and the crackling torched meringue balance out the frozen, concentrated “coffee icicles” within.
Before August moved into its ground-floor premises at Sequis Tower, it started out as a private kitchen during the pandemic, when Bandung-born chef-owner Hans Christian teamed up with hospitality industry veteran Budi Cahyadi on the heels of a three-year spell at the Fairmont Jakarta following stints in Chicago and upstate New York. Harnessing Indonesian ingredients and contemporary French techniques, chef Hans has distilled his overseas experiences into globally inspired treats like custardy bubble tea and Earl Grey pudding, hamachi crudo with miso and Lombok skipjack tuna katsuboshi, and foie gras PB&J tarts topped with pickled grape.
Halfway through the meal, Cahyadi joins our table for a chat. I learn that August derives its name not from the month but the adjective, a synonym for “esteemed” and “respected” — which speaks to what the co-founders envisioned at the outset. The dinners-only venue seats 50 in an unfussy, stripped-back environment: interiors are predominantly gray with timber elements, black seats and counters, globe lamps, and stone and herringbone wood floors. August is no stuffy, intimidating space where silence rules the roost — animated conversation fills the main dining area even on weeknights. By contrast, the open kitchen is a paragon of quiet efficiency. “It started when we did private dining,” Cahyadi says. “Cooking for 10 in a small apartment, if you drop something you really hear it. After we moved here, we decided to continue our way of working. We want to show that you can serve good food and run a kitchen in a more elegant way.”
Equally elegant are the clever reinterpretations of local classics. White opor featuring batik clams and tataki-esque scallop slices is recast as “Indonesian seafood chowder,” with puffed rice, chili oil, and the zing of torch ginger flower adding a bit more complexity. A side of homemade pretzel balls allows us to mop up every last drop of the soup. Another crowd-pleaser is chef Hans’ take on the Central Javanese specialty garang asem, transformed into a single serving of sablefish, torch ginger flower relish, and delicate, star-like pieces of sour bilimbi fruit in a sublime broth. “This would be so good paired with white rice,” a fellow diner declares.
But my favorite course of all is the one inspired by Riau-style laksa, using tiny dried shrimps mixed with tongue-numbing andaliman pepper and other spices to create a full-bodied sauce. Atop this flavor-packed gravy rest charred slow-cooked octopus from West Sumatra, watermelon, and lemon basil leaves with black-olive chimichurri. Padang cuisine gets a nod too — tender Australian lamb loin finds its perfect foil in smoky, coconut cream–laden green curry reduction; translucent sheets of pickled daikon; and cooked cassava leaves tightly rolled into a ball. The interior of the latter is deeply reminiscent of creamed spinach: one bite and I’m transported to an American-style steakhouse beloved by my late grandfather. What’s clear is that chef Hans knows how to excite the palates of both Indonesian and foreign gourmands, striking a fine balance between the familiar and the novel in unexpected ways.
And wouldn’t you know it? Barely a week after my visit, I receive word that Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants has handed the fine-diner the prestigious “One To Watch” award for 2023. August, it seems, is already living up to its name.