Indonesia is made up of a lush constellation of islands, seemingly flung across a stretch of sea, between the South Pacific and Indian Oceans, lying just north of Australia and south of the Philippines.
For centuries, Indonesia has been known for its abundant spices. The European appetite for spices — and the money to be made trading them — brought the Dutch to Indonesia in the 16th century. The Dutch East India Company controlled the spice trade there for the next 350 years.
Today, if you visit the Netherlands, you’ll find Indonesian restaurants aplenty. In fact, it’s in cities like Amsterdam where most Americans try Indonesian cooking for the first time. That’s because this delicious cuisine has yet to catch on in the States, which is mystifying since the Indonesians combine flavors associated with such already imported favorites as Thai, Indian and Vietnamese.
Lucky for Indianapolis, then, that Dutch transplant and restaurateur Peter Oomkes, along with his son Helger, has opened Garuda, its name referring to Indonesia’s great winged national symbol, at the intersection of 52nd St. and College Ave. Word has it Garuda is the first — and only — Indonesian restaurant in the state of Indiana.
Although Garuda doesn’t officially open for full-time business until Tuesday, March 8, it’s been serving customers buffet-style meals on Sunday afternoons in a series of “soft openings.” From the look of things on the day we visited, customer response has been tremendous. Diners packed the cozy space, helping themselves to a variety of savory dishes for the unbeatable price of $8. (Editors note; this price was for the "soft openings" only; the price for the buffet is $12.50.)
We started by trying the two soups on offer. The first was made with carrots pureed to a velvety consistency and cut with a hint of coconut. It struck a nice balance between being rich and refreshing. The other soup was a variant on chicken noodle. It was loaded with finely shredded meat and vegetables, but it substituted thin glass noodles for pasta and added cumin to provide a hint of afterburn.
Then we filled our plates. There were several dishes to choose from and, under the circumstances, we tried them all, beginning with Lumpia, a large Indonesian spring roll stuffed with chicken or tofu and sautéed mixed vegetables. The rolls are pan-fried and can be dipped in sweet and tangy peanut sauce or in a pineapple chili sauce.
Other dishes included Rendang with tender bits of lamb slow-roasted in coconut milk, chilis and lemongrass for a flavor reminiscent of a Thai green curry.
Laksa consisted of bite-size chunks of chicken sautéed with garlic and shallots in chicken stock and served over a bed of glass noodles.
There were three kinds of Satay, or kebabs – beef, chicken and vegetable. The beef and vegetable were particularly good. The beef was meltingly tender and prepared in a sweet barbeque sauce. The vegetable version featured grilled red onion, yellow squash and zucchini.
The Kubis Kalapa Salad was a truly original kind of slaw, with thick shreds of cabbage mixed with cucumbers, carrots and bits of fresh apple tossed with coconut milk and a trace of peanut sauce. It provided a bright counterweight to the other, richer, dishes.
Finally, we sampled the Nasi Goreng with tofu, Jasmine rice sautéed with shallots, garlic, chili peppers, carrots and bamboo shoots, garnished with green onions and cilantro.
Krupuk, a translucent, crispy shrimp cracker, was served as a side, and tables were outfitted with caddies bearing jars with hot and sweet chili sauces for diners who wanted a little extra hit.
Dessert consisted of tasty slices of fried plantain served with a frosty coconut ice cream and chocolate sauce – a great finish.
Everything we tried at Garuda put flavor first. Spices were abundant and used with authority – but in service to the creation of a rich and satisfying taste experience. These were seemingly simple dishes prepared with a high degree of sophistication.
Owner Oomkes says that when Garuda opens on a fulltime basis next week, the buffet selections will vary, and dinner will be offered from a full menu at a higher price point. A license to serve beer and wine is in the works and should be available soon. And there are plans in the works to allow for additional dining space to accommodate what promises to be a growing clientele.