Since opening Indonesia’s first molecular gastronomy restaurant in 2012, self-taught chef Andrian Ishak has continued to prove that he has surprises to spare
Things are crackling and exploding and chocolate shards are raining like confetti down on tables where diners are guarding themselves with red napkins like bullfighters, peeking over the top to see what’s happening on their plates. “Happy new year!” someone shouts. It’s mid-September, the opening night of chef Andrian Ishak’s latest 17-course menu at his Jakarta restaurant Namaaz Dining, and this is the finale. Compressing nitrogen inside chocolate eggs until fork tines tap them into eruption is certainly one way to go out with a bang.
Demur and genteel, 37-year-old Ishak has let his food do the talking since he opened Namaaz just two years ago as Indonesia’s first molecular gastronomy restaurant. The first course of his debut menu was the menu itself—or so it seemed, until Ishak told diners to take a bite, revealing it as a trompe-l’oeil of pineapple flour. And that was the last time he presented guests with a course list. He’s now on his fourth “season,” as he calls his themed degustations, and patrons only find out what they’re eating as each course arrives. Ishak’s agenda of surprises has made him a master of the soft sell, with Namaaz’s reputation as one of the city’s—and country’s—top restaurants spreading like wildfire.
Namaaz’s first incarnation was located farther south on the second floor of a shophouse with just eight seats and one employee. Ishak’s cooking caused such a sensation that after just one year he had to look for larger premises, moving Namaaz into a beautiful house in the upscale Senopati neighborhood nearer the center of town. Now, five nights weekly, the elegant black-tableclothed dining room fills nearly all of its 28 seats for a single three-hour dinner. Tempo magazine named Ishak 2013’s chef of the year. He’ll accept congratulations humbly, then half-smile and add, “But, well, I am not a chef.”
At the age when budding chefs are usually enrolling themselves in culinary school or apprenticing in a kitchen, Ishak was playing in a band, set on a future in music and painting on the side. It was his father who first foresaw his transition to gastronomy, perhaps from having watched Ishak dabble in the kitchen since the age of five, helping with his family’s catering business, or maybe when he made a perfect dish of martabak without ever having been taught how. But Ishak, who considers himself an artist first and foremost, doesn’t regard his career change as being much of one anyway. “It’s all about harmony. The music I made was really weird, really ideological. Food is the same.”
He continued to teach himself, ordering equipment like evaporators, centrifuges, and dehydrators and ingredients like coating gel from overseas suppliers and consulting books and YouTube to figure out how to use them. Liquid nitrogen has been his preferred toy of late, using it in an “anti-griddle” to freeze the bottom of custard, or blasting it into a coconut as he stirs and scrapes its insides, then scoops out ice cream with sugar crystals that explode in the mouth like Pop Rocks. “Of course, some experiments are going fail, but that’s the fun part, right?” He recalls an early attempt at soda, putting halved grapes with crushed dry ice into a Coca-Cola bottle and watching it swell and burst, rocketing out frozen fruit bits and cracking his mirror. “Maybe that’s why I don’t have an educational background. I just like to try things for myself.”
Yet for all his weird science and cutting-edge cuisine, Ishak keeps his artistry distinctly Indonesian, and never more so than with this season, Street Food, inspired by the food carts of Jakarta’s streets. Like the plastic bags of goldfish vendors, water-filled camping lanterns with fish instead of bulbs hang above the black counter siding the open kitchen, where Converse-clad assistants fill vials with vinegar sauce to be sipped through a meringue-topped straw for Ishak’s deconstructed take on the sweet-and-sour fruit soup asinan bogor, or squirt barbecue smoke into glass domes covering a savory pat of chicken for ayam bakar. As the playlist transitions from Kesha to Lou Reed’s “Walk On the Wild Side,” a young staffer with thick-rimmed glasses arrives tableside to introduce course eight, beef satay reimagined as two curried crackers sandwiching pillowy-soft tongue cooked sous vide for 42 hours. He later returns to explain the proper exhalation process for course 12, Dragon’s Breath—a small Nitrogen-infused meringue that dissolves into a puff of smoke.
The thing about science is that answering one question only leads to many more, which is why, after-hours, Ishak turns down the lights, turns up the music, and continues to experiment late into the night. (He has already chosen themes for his next two seasons: Childhood and Supermarket.) Sometimes he develops new molecular methods and finds foods to encapsulate their madness; sometimes he works in the reverse, figuring out what his tools can do to reinvent a simple dish. And—not to spoil any surprises—Street Food’s first course is just that.
Jl. Gunawarman No. 42, Kebayoran Baru, South Jakarta; 62-21/3306-1000; Namaaz Dining; 17-course dinner for two about US$185
This article originally appeared in the October/November print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“A New Season for Namaaz”)