We’ve counted the number of dishes on the menu. Despite the four of us trying to order five different dishes each, we still won’t be able to cover all forty dishes listed on the menu, and that doesn’t even include the specials and dessert menus which are written on blackboard on the wall. “Don’t worry, they are small portions. Best to order 4 or 5 dishes per person, depends on how hungry you are,” explains Lenny, c0-owners of restaurant 1945 – a new and also the first restaurant in Sydney that specialises on Dutch East Indies cuisine, which also known as the Rijsttafel.
The restaurant is named after the year when Indonesia declared independence and the rijsttafel was predominantly popular with Dutch families with colonial roots. Ellie (Almost Bourdain), who married a Dutch, Mr J are both familiar with this kind of cuisine and kindly asked The Pom and Helen (Grab Your Fork) and I to join them for a Dutch colonial feast at 1945. We simply couldn’t say no.
The minimalist white space on the eatery street in Pyrmont where Blue Eye Dragon used to be, has now transformed into an intimate restaurant with warm pumpkin yellow walls, exotic wooden artefacts replicas filled up the space at every corners. But the most eye-catching piece on the wall has to be the painting of Raden Ayu Kartini which dominates the room, she is one of the first and foremost pioneers for the women’s movement in Indonesia. She is a heroic figure who had inspired many women from Indonesia, including these three female owners behind the restaurant 1945.
If eyes are the window to the soul, then this cute intricate wooden menu is the door to my heart’s content. The multi-page menu explains the history of Dutch East Indies cuisine, introduces two organic boutique wines specially handcrafted at Hunter Valley to accompany the delicacies 1945 has to offer. Set Rijsttafel banquets are available for those who can’t decide, but ambitious us decided to go with the a la carte menu and order our own selection of dishes.
Drinks and pre-dinner snacks arrive first as we still perusing the menu trying to decipher. Helen’s bankrek is a dark if not almost black medicinal drink, infused with ginger, fennel, cinnamon and cloves, a common herbal drink that is perfect to counterbalance the heaty Indonesian food that is either spicy or deep fried. Ellie goes for the refreshing Roedjak Air, a cloudy drink filled with finely grated exotic fruit floating at the bottom of the glass, sweetened with pandan sugar and a dash of lime juice for the zing. The Pom and I opt for the boutique organic wine, the 1945 Chardonnay certified organic vintage 2009 is a fruity blend of peach, honey and a little hint of hazelnut while my 1945 premium Shiraz organic vintage 2009 is bold and earthy, spiced with cloves lingering in the background.
The emping bitternut crakers look just like cornflakes but slightly bigger, it is crunchy with a little hint of bitterness, a perfect snack with beer. And the Kropoeak odeang here is the thicker and firmer version of prawn crackers, which is more common in countries like Thailand and Indonesia. I prefer this type of prawn crackers which has a stronger if not pungent prawn flavour comparing to those Chinese faux version that comes in rainbow colours which only look good on a plate, but not for eating.
Mr J had spent some time in Indonesia through his career, he entertains us with stories especially one particular experience of a Rijsttafel feast he had in a prestigious restaurant in Jakarta called Oasis. “It is all you can eat and there are 40 waiters in uniform all lined up in a queue, each holding a dish for you to choose. If you like it, they will serve it on your plate, if not move on to another, and another, and another.” I am salivating from the inside listening to Mr J’s story, but thankfully our food arrive just in time to save the empty stomachs. There are no 40 waiters serving us, but instead our dishes are neatly presented in either large round wooden trays or bamboo woven baskets lined with banana leaves.
When my dish arrive only then I realised that all the dishes I’ve chosen are meat, and meat. The Ajam panggang ketjap is chicken drumstick marinated in kicap manis, grilled to a sweet caramelisation happening on the exterior while still soft and tender on the inside. The Ajam goreng koening on the other hand, is powdered with tumeric then deep fried to a golden brown crunch, served with a sprinkle of deep fried shallots on top. Sate Babi is the most ordered at the table, as we are convinced that the pork skewers are more unusual than chicken when comes to research purposes. It is indeed delicious with a smokey flavour, tender pork pieces served with a thick spicy peanut sate sauce. The smoor daging is a stew of beef chuck in a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves for hours until tenderly soft.
Lenny who takes our orders is surprised that none of us take fancy of the rendang daging. She insisted that it is one of their specialties and encouraged us to order it. I am intrigued and decided to give it a try to see how difference it is in comparison to the Malaysian style of beef rendang.
Same same but different, the rendang daging is tender after being braised in spices and coconut milk for hours. It is aromatic but milder and wetter in style comparing to the Malaysian version which is usually almost dry and a little spicier. I still prefer my beef rendang in Malaysian style but this is also a good dish, I can see myself eating it with a bowl of steamed rice.
One of the dishes that Mr J really looking forward to try is the Sop Boentoet. It is one of his favourite dishes and declares no one can do a better soup boentoet than his mum’s version. But the one prepared by chef Natasha comes close. Chunks of oxtail are simmered in a thick soup spiced with nutmeg and flavoured with a heavy dose of fried shallots, cubes of soft carrots add hint of sweetness to the soup in the background.
Helen has ordered Sate Babi, Sop Boentoet, Ajam Panggang Ketjap and also Sambal Oedang Petai which is prawns stir fried in sambal lemongrass chilli sauce with sator beans which is also known as “stinky beans”; and also Boentoet Baker Madoe, a big hunk of oxtail grilled in honey glaze and again, sprinkle of fried shallots.
Ellie and Mr J selections are almost the same, they both have chosen Sate Babi, Sambal Oedang Petai and Pansit Goreng, which is deep fried moneybags, filled with minced pork and prawn served with a sweet and sour chili sauce. The 4th and 5th dishes on Ellie’s plate are smoor daging and pepes tahoe. The pepes tahoe is her least favourite, an interesting combination of mashed tofu, whitebait and basil leaves grilled in banana leaves. I had a taste and I found the basil is little overpowering and the texture of tofu is not my favourite either.
The Pom orders sate babi as everybody does, Ayam goreng koening, dendeng sapi balado which is stewed lemongrass beef fillet then pan fried with ground chili and shallots; tjoemi goreng tepoeng, which is scored squids in light seasoned batter then deep fried to golden brown and served with chopped birds eyes chillies in kicap manis dipping sauce.
The Pom’s last dish is the Soto Betawi, a beef soup cooked in coconut milk which gives it a rich and creamy texture. The flavour is surprisingly light with a squeeze of the lime provided, fragrant with coriander leaves and fried shallots. Not quite sure whether that are actually any beef in the soup but the bitternut crackers are aplenty in the soup for that extra crunch.
Apart from minding our own plates that are already busy with dishes, we also share a beautiful Ikan Panggang from the special menu. The snapper had been grilled in sweet kicap manis to an almost unidentifiable state, with a smoked and caramelised exterior but with succulent sweet flesh inside. The flavour of the fish is intensified with the accompanying sambal tomat dressing, which is a very hot sweet and sour kicap manis sauce with red onions, tomatoes and birds eyes chillies.
We also receive a complimentary serve of kerang saoes padang which is totally unexpected. The fresh black mussels are just cooked through, smothered in chili sauce that packs quite a heat punch while the thinly sliced kaffir lime leaves gives the dish a Thai flavour twist.
We don’t just eat our dishes on its own, we have also order all three different type of rice to accompany our meal. The nasi pandan is jasmine rice infused with pandan leaf, nasi oedoek is fragrant coconut milk and a hint of lemongrass, and Nasi Koening, a very common rice that is coloured and spiced with tumeric, cooked in chicken stock, lemongrass and bayleaf, easily my favourite among them all.
After we finish our meal, Lenny finally gets Natasha who has been busy in the kitchen to come out to say hello. She tells us that she was trained at Le Cordon Bleu in California and Melbourne in classic French cuisine, but it is the traditional Indonesian cooking she learned from her grandma that’s what she loves the most. Hence, taking a big risk and followed her instincts, teamed up with two girlfriends and 1945 was born just two weeks before our arrival at the restaurant.
“You have to try the desserts tonight,” Natasha insists, and we are not going to argue.
It is very rare to serve desserts after meal in Asian cuisines, usually either a platter of fruit or some kuih. Hence don’t be alarm to find that a lot of the items on the dessert menu at 1945 are either hawker street food or sweet soup. The Rudjak (or Rojak in Malaysia) is usually a hawker snack, a fruit salad mixed in a sweet shrimp paste and chilli sauce then sprinkled with a generous amount of chopped peanuts all over. It has an acquired taste that some may find it difficult to understand the whole mind-blogging combination of all flavours in one.
There are chunks of pineapples, jicama and cucumbers in the mix, but the rudjak here is milder than what I used to back in Malaysia.
Mr J wants coffee after meal, but Lenny explains to us that they are still fine tuning the menu and still looking for a coffee blend that fits the bill. She suggests us to give tea potji a try, a strong brew of three different type of Jasmine tea leaves in one. I loved jasmine tea and it is definitely up my alley, but others find it taste soapy.
Es Tjendol is pretty much similar to the Ais Chendol in Malaysia. A cool refreshing drink with little green-worms like pandan flavoured noodles, topped with shaved ice then drizzled with palm sugar syrup and coconut milk for that ultimate sweetness. Again, I find the Es Tjendol is milder and more watery than the Malaysian version.
Es Pelangi is a kaleidoscope in a glass, with a sweet mix of colourful agar jellies, flesh of coco de mer, longans and basil seeds. It will be a perfect summer icy drink with a mountain of shaved ice soaked in rose syrup. But my favourite is the Kolak Pisang, the sickening sweet soup is served warm with cooked sweet potatoes cubes, jackfruit and banana slices in thick coconut milk with a rich flavour of palm sugar syrup.
Despite the dishes start at $3, it does add up by the end of our meal and we pay around $50 per person. But overall the food at 1945 is full of flavours if not using fried shallots perhaps a little too much. Mr J even compliments Natasha that her Sop Boentoet tasted just like how his mum used to make it. Trust the Dutch with the Dutch East Indie cuisines.
1945 Dutch East Indies Cuisine 2/42 Harris Street Pyrmont, Australia, NSW 2009 Tel: +61 (02) 9660 9699 Opening hours: Lunch 12pm - 3pm Dinner 6pm - 10pm