What do you know about Indonesia? Can you name the capital? The president? A couple of the major islands? Perhaps the most well-known fact about this archipelago nation of more than 17,000 islands is the answer to this trivia question: Which country has the most Muslims?
The owners of Surabaya, the new Indonesian spot in the Hawthorne Boulevard location that housed the much-loved Compass Cafe, assume most Portland diners know little about the cuisine. "You've got some reading to do," the waitress cheerfully announced on one visit as she handed us wordy menus. "If you want to," she added quickly.
Reading the front of the menu, with its lengthy descriptions of dishes, can be challenging. For example: "'Greener Pasture Farm' free range chicken, oven roasted and served in a lemongrass and galangal stew with fingerling potatoes and root vegetables topped with rempeyek, a crispy Indonesian savory peanut pancake." The primer on the back of the menu reveals that galangal is a bitter-flavored rhizome in the ginger family.
The dish ($16.50) is delicious: wonderfully tender chicken soaked in a sauce that gets more interesting with every bite, accompanied by a basket of crackly shrimp chips with pickled vegetables and rich peanut sauce, with a chewy peanut pancake.
You could make a lovely and unusual meal out of several of the small dishes on the menu. The Indonesian small-plate tradition known as rijsttafel--a term drawn from the Dutch words for "rice" and "table"--dates back to the country's history as a Dutch colony. During these celebrations, feasts were prepared out of many small dishes of rice with spicy or pickled accompaniments, to mark visits from colonial rulers or offer opportunities for the sultans to display their wealth.
Many of the small dishes on Surabaya's menu blend sweet and savory flavors in multiple layers, such as a sweet rice cake ($8) filled with spicy chicken wrapped in a banana leaf, served under a green papaya slaw. A fist-sized ginger crab cake ($9.50) offers the perfect marriage of crisp and creamy, and it's served on a goulash of corn and wild mushrooms flavored with sweet chili and lime. The risoles ($7.50), described as an Indonesian crêpe, was a crisp-fried package stuffed with mushrooms and spinach. You'd think the egg roll ($8.50), with smoked mushrooms and cabbage, would taste familiar, but it didn't. In fact, it was the weakest dish I sampled, with a smell and taste that reminded me of dog bones.
The salads, too, need work, as the baby field-greens salad ($6.50) was so cold it was painful to the teeth. The yummy topping of pancetta pralines could be eaten like candy, but there were too few of them, and the promised bleu cheese couldn't be found. The gado gado salad ($6.50) is another mélange, which turned out to be strangely dull, despite the amount of ingredients: green beans, mushrooms, boiled potatoes, boiled egg, tomatoes, cucumber, tofu, bean sprouts and fried shallots. Another starter, the roasted-pumpkin soup ($6), is more successful, a tasty combination of sweet squash with lemon grass, turmeric and coconut milk.
If you take a more traditional main-course route, you won't be disappointed with the pork loin ($16.50), a luscious piece of meat. There are several vegetarian options, like sweet-and-spicy tempeh ($11.50) and sweet-potato dumplings ($12.50). On recent visits, the dumplings were well-flavored though slightly undercooked, but eventually melted down nicely into the sour tamarind broth. The sturgeon ($18) is described on the menu with 33 words, yet it delivered the flattest flavor, with an overwhelming smoky taste.
For dessert, try the excellent fried bananas, served with lemongrass-and-ginger ice cream and topped with a cardamom butterscotch sauce ($6.50). The sweetness is cut with dollops of cilantro gel, which tastes better than it sounds. The spekkoek ($6) looks pretty, with thin layers of light-and-dark spice cake, but needs more of the coffee cream sauce to counteract the firm texture.
All in all, Surabaya's unusual cuisine--its fusion of Northwest ingredients with traditional Indonesian spices and chiles--is a welcome addition to Portland's food world, and the restaurant's secluded garden invites pleasant thoughts of summer dining. In the meantime, maybe we need thoughts of the equatorial Far East on a cold and rainy Portland night. And while you're warmed by the idea of Indonesia, here are some handy facts to remember. The capital is Jakarta, the president is Megawati Soekarnoputri, and two major islands are Sumatra and Java.
4741 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 236-2845
Dinner Wednesday-Sunday, Brunch Saturday-Sunday.
$-$$. Inexpensive to moderate.
Surabaya is the name of the Indonesian town where chef/owner Richard van Rossum was born.
The colorful paint job and decorations include wonderful art pieces by van Rossum's wife, Sarah Ferguson--who is not the royal Fergie.
Beginning Dec. 10, the restaurant will host communal Rijsttafel dinners at 5 and 7:30 pm on the second Wednesday of each month.