Indonesian cooking is woefully under represented in New York City; despite a small handful of restaurants serving the local Indonesian population, our real mecca is the summer Bazaar at Astoria's Masjid Al-Hikmah, an occasional event that only comes a few times a year.
Even less common, is the rijsttafel, a tradition born from Dutch colonization of the archipelago that involves multitudes of servants presenting up to 40 small dishes with rice. The practice is not even popular in Indonesia, where the ceremony is considered too rich for common blood. Java in South Park Slope offers one of the city's few rijsttafels, and while there's no ritual of excess, it makes good on the promise to present the different flavors of Indonesian cuisine.
The meal begins with a bowl of Soto Ayam, a revitalizing, peppery chicken broth with vermicelli, sprouts, chewy fried potato, and a quarter of a perfectly hard boiled egg. The bowl isn't luxurious or exceptionally unique, but it's incredibly comforting and unexpectedly complex for a starter soup.
Fried Bakwan (corn fritters) and Lumpia follow shortly after. Both are expertly crisp, but the lumpia with its soft pounded rice filling stands out as particularly memorable. Sweet and tangy vegetables pickled in turmeric vinegar offer an acidic counterbalance to the fried foods. The Gado Gado Salad is little more than steamed vegetables and peanut sauce, enjoyable but only distantly reminiscent of the idealized version found at the bazaar.
These initial offerings are enough to take you half of the way to full, but if you've ordered the large rijsttafel ($75 for two, easily feeds three), there are sixteen more dishes. The amount of food that follows is much less oppressive than it sounds. A thin stainless steel warming tray arrives at the table with bowls of rice and the first round of small plates, each enough for everyone to have just a few tastes.
You could start by savoring some of the standouts, like the udang tumis, shrimp cooked in chilies, onions, garlic, and shrimp paste, but you'll quickly fall behind. The next ten dishes arrive within minutes, a veritable overload for the table and your tastebuds. It's a challenge to pause and appreciate each bite when you're overwhelmed with options, but there are few dishes that are more noteworthy than others.
The turmeric-rich coconut curry of the Ikan Kuning drapes over gently cooked cod and crisp green chili peppers; fried shallots add texture to the delicate dish. In general, the seafood dishes in the rijsttafel are without flaw, where the beef and chicken dishes achieve varying degrees of success; some tend toward chewy and overcooked.
Most disappointing is the Rendang, which falls quite short of the iconic dish of braised spoon-tender beef, coated in a highly reduced gravy of shallots, lemongrass, and ginger. This version is just some pale chunks of beef in spicy coconut milk. I'd have been disappointed if this was all I ordered, but it's not such a big deal when there's so much good stuff on the table.
Even though the kitchen puts out dishes at a decidedly rapid pace, a rijsttafel at Java easily approaches two hours, making it one of the more economical ways to share a long dinner with friends. In spite of the scarcity of Indonesian cuisine is in New York, the food at Java feels familiar, and may leave a more adventurous eater somewhat disappointed; but the rijsttafel is undeniably filling, satisfying the stomach and the senses.