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Dinner á deux, Javanese Style

Jakarta spices up your Valentine's Day

Romantic dinners in San Francisco can go two ways: either your plunk down a huge wad of cash for a big name, or you trudge to some remote neighborhood (where there's no parking) to eat ethnic food. Okay, so this article is about option #2. But Jakarta, purveyor of fine Indonesian cuisine since 1990, is well worth the trip.

Indonesian is the ultimate in Fusion, due in no small part to the rampant colonialism of Southeast Asia. Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Middle Eastern and British influences are present in contemporary Indonesian cuisine, which also reflects the chili peppers, peanut sauces and stewed curries of Thailand, the lemon grass and fish sauce of Vietnam, the intricate spice blends of India and the cooking methods of Asia. Bringing together foods from the disparate provinces of Java, Bali, Sunda and Padang, Jakarta is a true melting pot of culinary tastes.

The style at Jakarta is pure colonial white-linen-napkin meets "The Year of Living Dangerously": walking into Jakarta is like walking into a different era. Beyond the low-arched doorway and wooden latticework trellis is an intimate little table for two, tucked away in a back corner, dimly lit and covered in sumptuous burgundy fabric. The walls are hung with native masks and artwork, and shadow puppets dance in the windows, casting their filigree shadows on the walls and ceiling. It's romantic as hell, yet interesting and different -- a true San Francisco delight. The service is gracious, too: if you're a little confused at what to order, Nisman Thahar, one of the proprietors, will, in the nicest possible way, recommend something delicious. Now, if they only had a valet...

Vegetarian is one of Jakarta's specialties: the kalio tempeh and tahu (tempeh cooked in coconut milk, lemon grass and spices) will make you swoon, as will the petris, spicy fried tofu with bean sprouts, cabbage and peanut sauce. Be sure and taste their prizewinning Jakarta Bali BBQ sauce, a sweet-spicy explosion of taste. Fortunately, most of the plates are drenched in it, so you'll find it hard to miss.

However, the best reason to visit Jakarta is the rijsttafel (rice table), a sampler meal for two that includes small plates of the following: gulai udang (prawns, vegetables cooked with coconut milk and mild spices), semur daging (beef steak with Javanese soy sauce and mild spices), ayam panggang (grilled marinated chicken served with sauce), ayam kalasan (Javanese fried chicken), gadogado (vegetarian dream plate salad served with peanut sauce), sate sapi (grilled marinated beef on skewer served with peanut sauce), sate ayam (grilled marinated chicken on skewer served with peanut sauce), sambal kering tempeh (fried tempeh, potatoes and chilies), kerupuk (prawn cracker) and steamed rice. At $42.00 total for two people, you won't find a tastier or more reasonable prix fixe anywhere.