It’s difficult to say where it all began. Life, that is. Or my introduction to Sky Cafe, an Indonesian restaurant in New York.
Every now and then I go to Philadelphia to visit a college buddy. He introduced to me the good food neighborhoods of South Philly, in particular restaurants serving Vietnamese and Indonesian staples. Before you ask, yes, Philadelphia does do some things better than New York, and those two cuisines are just a couple of examples. This, however, is not an example.
In any event, we once ended up at a place called Sky Cafe. It was something of a dank, but the food was alright.
Fast forward a couple of years to the “Journey to Indonesia” festival, which was held last month in front of the Indonesian consulate in Manhattan. There was a Q&A contest, and I happened to get one of the answers right. They also said in Indonesian “how could the white guy know this and not you?,” but that’s a story for another day.
Well, the prize happened to be a $25 gift certificate to Sky Cafe…wait a sec, there’s one in NY too? Yep, and it’s in Elmhurst, Queens:
As the coupon was to expire today, I headed for Sky Cafe yesterday. The menu amused me because it reflected the ol’ merah putih – that is, red white – the flag of Indonesia. However, two minutes later, the waiter came by and gave me a new and improved (i.e. higher prices) menu.
I showed him the certificate, and he said “order what you can, I can’t give you cash.” Good idea!
My order included nasi lemak rendang, that is, coconut-stewed beef served with rice cooked in coconut milk, nasi ikan balado, or fried fish with red chilies and rice (though getting two orders of rice was not on the agenda) and sambal hijau, green chili sambal/sauce.
Good combo too! Lots of flavor profiles, what with the vegetables and peanut sauce, eggs, fried fish, stewed beef, and green and red chilies, and peanuts. Although the rendang was a bit lacking in the coconut/juiciness department, I’d order both of these dishes again.
Indeed, spicy, savory and sweet were all present, though I should have added sour – maybe asam pedas – too. (By the way, that link says it’s Malaysian. It’s not.) Definitely would get more sambal hijau, because I was addicted to the stuff while living in Jakarta.
I’ve come to learn that Indonesia specifically but Southeast Asia in general offers some bizarre drinks too. I don’t usually order something with added sugar, unless it’s my first time trying it. Allow me to introduce you to es sekoteng (Medan), or at least the New York/temperate climate take on it:
You see the liquid below ice? Turn on your average tap in Jakarta, and that’s what you get.
…ok, whereas that might be a slight stretch, stay FAR away from drinking tap water there.
The drink, es (ice) and sekoteng (actually a ginger-based drink usually served hot), had all sorts of ingredients to freak us out. The waiter told me that they import their ice direct from Indonesia…nah, that would just be wrong. Right away, I recognized basil seeds, lychee and longan, but everything else was a blur. Apparently, Chinese girlfriend (pacar cina) is one ingredient, a part of the plant sometimes called the Chinese perfume plant. Chinese perfume. Sure. Something else was kolang–kaling, the seed of a sugar palm. I couldn’t identify two other pieces of flotsam, but I think pomegranate seeds, peels and palm sugar played a role. Fun, nonetheless.
If the question was where can I find Indonesian food in New York?, I’d give this place another go. Indonesian staff, and Indonesian-language tv and periodicals help seal the deal.