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Review Tue May 06 2014

A 13-Dish Indonesian Feast

Most people associate Indonesia with ornate Buddhist temples in Eat, Pray, Love, or if they're particularly world-savvy, as the country with the highest Muslim population. But Indonesian food typically draws a blank -- Rice? Fish? Spicy stuff, right?

Until last year, I didn't know Indonesian cuisine existed as a unique entity. Unfamiliar dishes like sambal and gado gado seemed too exotic (even for me), and the lack of Indonesian restaurants in Chicago fueled my general apathy towards the cuisine. Many dining experiences later, I've discovered that Indonesian food is a wonderfully confusing amalgamation of flavors and textures; it's Thai food on crack, Korean banchan on steroids, a genuine mutt of Southeast Asian cuisine.

There's a whopping two Indonesian restaurants in Chicago -- Rickshaw Republic and Rice Table. Although primarily a catering business, Rice Table hosts a monthly pop-up dinner at Vincent in Andersonville. Like the food he serves, Chef Chris Reed is a fusion of different ethnicities and nationalities -- black, Indonesian, Chinese, and white. "Rice Table" is a direct translation of rijsttafel, a concept first developed during colonization when the Dutch indulged in elaborate meals consisting of multiple side dishes.

My rijsttafel meal at Rice Table consisted of 13 dishes (although 40+ dishes is not uncommon):

• Nasi Putih (steamed white rice)
• Lumpia (deep fried spring roll with cabbage, carrots, bean sprouts, and chicken/tofu)
• Sambal Goreng Kentang (fried potato in a sweet soy sauce with fried shallots and chiles)
• Atjar (pickled cucumber, carrot, cabbage, bean sprout, onion)
• Serundeng (toasted shaved coconut with whole peanuts and spices)
• Sateh Ayam (marinated grilled chicken skewers with peanut sauce)
• Pepes Ikan (grilled spicy mackerel in banana leaf)
• Nasi Kuning (turmeric infused coconut rice)
• Sambal Goreng Telor (hard boiled egg in spicy coconut curry)
• Ba mie goring (stir fried noodles with onions, bok choy, carrots, and snow peas)
• Gado gado (cabbage, green bean, cucumber, bean sprout with peanut sauce)
• Ayam rujak (chicken braised in spicy coconut curry)
• Babi panggang (roasted char siu BBQ pork with black bean sauce)

rsz_dsc_0363.jpgThe wonderful thing about Indonesian rijsttafel is that you get a bit of everything -- Filipino lumpia, the familiar Chinese char siu, the classic gado gado salad with peanut sauce, the Thai-like chicken curry, the Indian undertones of the turmeric infused rice. True to rijsttafel tradition, diners could order more of certain dishes without additional charge. The liberal use of garlic, onions, peanuts, and chiles arouses the palate with inspirational combinations of flavor and texture. My most memorable dish was the pepes ikan -- a flaky filet of scrumptious fish, slightly infused with earthy leaf flavor, and topped with an addictively spicy sambal.

dsc_0353.jpgBecause of the extensive preparation that goes into a rijsttafel, Chef Reed caps the number of diners who attend his monthly dinners (though there's obviously some wiggle room). Reed's mother and business partner, Priscilla-Jane, adds that a smaller crowd means more attentive service and better food quality, which is particularly important as a rijsttafel is meant to be an extensive social experience.

Though Rice Table isn't a full-scale restaurant, I dearly wish it was. Not only does the food taste incredibly authentic, it's actually prepared and served by Reed's friends and family. Even if you're a picky eater, there are plenty of dishes to choose from.

The Rice Table's next dinner will be Sunday, June 8 at Vincent, 1475 W. Balmoral Ave. Tickets are $45 per person.


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