Diner: Spice Island

Folk food meets folk art at Northside's new Indonesian cafe

Gajah Wong
Go: 3937 Spring Grove Ave., Northside

Call: 513-591-3935

Hours: 5:30-9 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 5:30-9:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday.

Prices: Moderate

Payment: Major credit cards accepted

Red Meat Alternatives: Tofu and tempeh

Accessibility: Yes

Grade: A-

Craig and Rue Congdon had an Indonesian import store full of furniture, folk art and rare artifacts, but business was slow. Born on the island of Java, Rue had another treasure: family recipes handed down through generations. Not unlike the teak in their store, which was reclaimed from old farmhouses and transformed into furniture, the couple decided to use what they had in front of them to make something new: a cafe.

They named it Gajah Wong, which translates as "elephant people" or "elephant way." The Congdons were inspired by a place of that name in Java, where a woman cleaned up a site being used as a dumping ground to open a restaurant. Craig had poured similar energies into fixing up his abandoned Northside building when he bought it in 1984 to house the furniture restoration shop that preceded his retail business.

Anyone who enjoys Thai, Indian, Vietnamese or Chinese food will easily pick up on the cuisine of the Spice Islands that were so lusted after by the Dutch for their nutmeg and cloves.

The Indonesian diet is rice-based and built around richly complex sambals, or spice pastes.

Inside, the store's inventory has been transformed into an exotic dining room. Walls are covered with wooden masks, sandstone reliefs and bright Batik artwork and tapestries, many still with price tags dangling. But on warm nights, the garden patio is ideal for gathering around a big teak table with friends or family.

Though my party had grown from four to six in the hours between making reservations and arriving, it wasn't a problem accommodating us on a Thursday night.

Under an umbrella of shady trees, a big dragon's head fountain in the center of the garden drowns out the sounds of traffic. From a handcrafted, wooden rocking horse to an altar of Buddhist statues, every object seems to tell a story.

In one corner, there's a humble, wooden stage for live music — empty the night we visited, save for a local raccoon who seemed to be getting over his stage fright just fine. Eventually, Craig says they'd like to have a regular lineup of local world music performers, but for now you can call for upcoming events.

Gajah Wong has a liquor-only license (no beer or wine). In addition to cocktails, there's an extensive list of flavored coffee and hot chocolate drinks with cutesy names like Virgin Sweet Dreams. One friend was pleased to find a selection of loose-leaf teas ($2.75) from Essencha in Oakley.

Still glowing from the festivities of Memorial Day weekend, it was a round of cocktails for the rest of us. "Pimm's Cup!" one shouted gleefully. She'd been there before and loved the refreshing blend of Pimm's #01, cucumbers, lemon juice and 7-Up. Another's Bloody Mary ($4.50) benefited from vodka infused with chilies grown in the Congdon's backyard and hints of horseradish.

But many of the drinks sounded too heavy and sweet for the food. I'd suggest adding more tropical juices, fresh fruit purees and herbal- and spice-infusions to the list.

We dined family-style, and since the menu is short and sweet we got to taste almost everything on it. Indonesia is comprised of more than 15,000 islands, and Gajah Wong's menu includes local dishes of a few of them.

Indo Garden Rolls ($4.50 with tofu, $5 with shrimp) are similar to what you get in Thai restaurants: translucent rice paper filled with crunchy beat sprouts, vermicelli noodles, carrots, cucumber and cilantro, topped with Hoisin sauce. Soto Ayam — an invigorating soup of pulled chicken, swimming with vermicelli noodles, potatoes, shallots, hard-boiled eggs and bean sprouts — is reminiscent of Vietnamese pho.

Entrées are served with sides of lightly spiced, pale yellow rice and nicely varied vegetables. Rendang ($18) is like a tropical pot roast: slow-cooked beef in a richly spiced, dark sauce with a tasty side of watercress sautéed in ginger and garlic. The other entrées are offered with a choice of Shrimp ($16.50), Grilled Chicken ($15.50) or Tofu and Tempeh ($14.50).

The combination of chilies, nuts and spices in our Shrimp Java Kare drew comparisons to Massaman curry, and a fiery Adhun sauce gave a wonderful flavor to tofu and tempeh. The Gudeg sauce is a milder, fragrant mixture of lemongrass, bay leaves, galanga and spices, accompanied by a side of jackfruit (a tropical vegetable that tastes mysteriously like pork) sautéed in coconut milk and palm sugar.

For dessert, I recommend the spicy Ginger Cake ($5) — grandma's recipe, of course, but drizzled with curacao and Cointreau and topped with whipped cream.

We enjoyed everything we tried, the only complaint being that prices seemed a little steep. Our server apologized that our entrées arrived staggered due to some confusion with another table that had ordered the same dishes. But her service was excellent, and we could have lingered contentedly far longer than we did. ©

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