If you can find Indonesia on a map, and I know you can, you'd visit Indo expecting food we associate with China and Southeast Asia: rice and noodle dishes, egg and spring rolls, soups with coconut a la Thai, Vietnamese banh mì, cousins of pho, fried rice, iced tea with condensed milk.
But you might be pleasantly surprised to also find names you ask for in Indian restaurants — curries, satays — and tempura vegetables that match anything Japan has to offer.
Best skip the cliches about "melting pot" and "crossroads of cultures" and just say that the Indonesians are one lucky bunch of people in the food department.
Open since October, Indo is a smallish and un-fancy place next to a liquor store. It's decorated with artifacts like prints of Indonesian dancers, fans, and a shadow puppet. Small plates for sharing are shaped like teardrops.
Chef and co-owner Melik Alonzo, from Java, the most important Indonesian island, was formerly executive chef at the acclaimed Da Nang in Clawson, serving Vietnamese food, so she comes to her own place with credibility.
When ordering from the good-sized and vegetarian-friendly list, I stayed away from dishes that sounded like American-type Chinese, just in case (sweet and sour, anything with pineapple). But ranging across the rest of the menu, I was mildly, mediumly, or hotly pleased by most dishes I tried (these are also your spice-level choices). One exception was spring rolls, encased in a rubbery rice paper and bland within.
Our party was crazy about bakwan, an enormous appetizer (serving, say, six) of crisp frittered vegetables with a spicy tomato sauce (note the New World influence). It will fill you. Shrimp fritters were also fine.
As another appetizer I ordered gado gado, which I'd thought was the Indonesian national dish, or one of them. But online, I learned that last year the Ministry of Tourism declared a new national dish — can they do that? Alonza says that tumpeng, involving a tall cone of rice surrounded by a slew of other dishes, is indeed served at special celebrations, and she will make it for you if asked in advance.
Gado gado, in any case, is shredded and steamed vegetables, mixed with potatoes and with tofu that hovers between soft and crisp, served with tamarind-peanut dressing. Although the dressing perks the vegetables up, it's on the bland side.
Another disappointment was "Twice-Cooked Game Hen," which turned out to be just a deep-fried bird, rather dry, with rice and vegetables on the side.
It's the noodle and rice dishes Indo excels at. My favorite, highly complex and intense, was peppercorn beef, which is sautéed with lots of onions and scallions and some cubes of mango, and roasted peanuts. The crunchy nuts, which you see more often in chicken or vegetable dishes than with beef, add depth to an already deeply flavored dish.
Nearly as wonderful are "curry noodles" made with grilled short ribs, which also find a new depth for beef. The meat is sweetish, and it combines magically well with egg, onion, tomatoes, carrots, and sprouts. If vermicelli aren't enough starch for you, there's a side of rice on your plate as well. This dish can be made with chicken, pork, or shrimp too.
And nearly as wonderful again is coconut chicken soup. It's brought with a little plate of extras for the diner to add at will: jalapeño, lime, basil, sprouts. A gorgeous yellow (that's the turmeric), it's intricate, creamy but not thick, crunchy with red onions and cabbage, with just the right amount of bite from scallions and sweetness from coconut, light in effect but filling, and not only because of the vermicelli nor its formidable size.
Clearly, at Indo it helps if you like coconut or peanuts. Coconut works its magic on beef in rendang, where the meat is cooked slowly with almonds, coconut milk, lemongrass, and leaf of lime. And in chicken curry, the recipe could read like Middle America — potatoes, carrots, onion — but for the use of coconut milk and Thai basil. This one can be served with rice or pita.
I'm not sure the above recounting gets across the variety available at Indo, from mango-papaya salad to tofu served three ways. The many vegetarian options are all vegan. And new on the menu is a version of rijsttafel (rice table), a request of Alonzo's Dutch customers. When the Dutch colonized the Indonesian islands centuries ago, they invented the rijsttafel as a way to show off dozens of small dishes in a super-impressive feast. At Indo $25 will get you three appetizers, soup or salad, and three entrées, and $35 will buy all that, soup and salad, plus dessert.
Alonzo offers all soups and entrées in two sizes and two prices, like $11 for lunch and $14 for dinner. But she makes the customer-friendly move of allowing them to order the lunch size/price at any time of day — with both sizes quite generous. The dinner-size soup, for example, would easily serve two as their main dish. And those who dine between 2 and 4:30 p.m. get a 15 percent discount.
Pretty affordable for a culinary trip to a crossroads of cultures.