Johanes and Shinta Muljadi are back in the kitchen where they belong
Reviewed by Mick Vann, Fri., April 13, 2007
1717 S. Pleasant Valley #280, 385-8858www.javagardens.net
Monday-Saturday, 11am-2:30pm, 5-9:30pm; Sunday, 11:30am-4:30pm (Indonesian buffet only)
Back in 1997, Johanes Muljadi and wife Shinta opened Java Noodles Restaurant on Oltorf to high praise, and for four years they prospered with a strong showing of regular customers. The Sunday Rijsttafel Buffet was wildly popular, especially with Indonesian students at the University of Texas. In 2001, they tried a larger space out on Research and found their situation there hampered by the economic downturn after September 11 compounded by massive highway construction that made it difficult to locate and access the new restaurant. Java Noodles hummed along with new management, while Johanes worked the roasted-meat counter at Central Market South and dealt real estate for almost four years. About 18 months ago, they formed a partnership to take over the old China Garden Restaurant on South Pleasant Valley. Johanes and Shinta were back in the kitchen where they belong.
They were partnered with Martin Brown and his Indonesian wife, Claudia, with their son Iwan running the service end. Martin lived in Java for five years and learned the food and culture while there; Iwan managed hotels in Indonesia for the Chedi Group. Even though they had a tight management team, with the members familiar with their roles, they had one more hurdle: The China Garden regulars were familiar with Chinese buffet food, and the old Johanes fans had no idea he was back in the game. Java Garden couldn't totally abandon the sure thing they had with the China Garden regulars, but they had to slowly introduce the old crowd to the new food and win back the fans from the old days. A compromise was reached.
During the week, the lunch buffet is almost entirely Chinese (with seven Indonesian lunch specials available from the menu), while the evening menu is mostly Indonesian, with a few Chinese items remaining for the regulars. "In a perfect world, the menu for every meal service would be totally Indonesian, but we can't afford to lose the regulars we have," Johanes says. The Sunday buffet ($7.95) is primarily Indonesian, and it's this option that they hope will bring back the missing regulars.
The Sunday buffet menu changes each week, and the menu is posted on their Web site by Saturday. We sampled the Sunday spread and found it delectable. There was an incendiary shrimp sambal with vegetables that left us in tears. In the ikan balado salmon was subbed nicely for the more typical mackerel and baked in a spicy red sauce with onions. Their chicken satay is the stuff of legend, and it's hard not to gorge on those sticks of goodness. Beef rendang is a slightly different version than they used to do; it's done here with more coconut milk, and it's a nice change. The fried chicken (ayam goreng) is a standard, with a wonderfully spicy coating on the outside, and it's different from the chicken wing coating, which is spicier. A beef with green peppers dish and beef with jalapeño (empal) were two of the beef options available, but there was also martabak.
Martabak is a pie stuffed with potatoes, vegetables, and ground beef cooked very slowly in a huge, very heavy cast-iron wok. It gets topped with a rich coconut cream sauce with strips of tender beef and spicy pickled cucumbers. Shinta also had a sweet martabak version, stuffed with chocolate, peanuts, and condensed milk. Excellent. Bakso was good: a wonton soup in a rich broth with meatballs and scallion. Shrimp with vegetables is a fresh, crunchy treat: the vegetables and shrimp just-cooked (and perfect with a dab of Johanes' spicy chile sambal). Of course, there was bakmi goreng, stir-fried noodles with egg and veggies, as well as chicken resoles. A salad bar with boiled shrimp, two soups, fried and steamed rice, and about a half dozen other items mostly Chinese in origin rounded out the groaning board. As a special treat, Shinta had made a batch of lapis legit ("thousand-layer cake"), an intoxicating spice cake made up of many dozens of very thin, patiently constructed layers, resembling a German baumkuchen (illustrating some of the historical Dutch culinary influence).
We zipped in later for a batch of an old favorite, Tahu Balado ($6.50), a delicious mixture of cubes of fried tofu, green pepper, onion, and pineapple, all in a red, aromatic, spicy, chile-infused sauce. It was the must-have dish at the old location. The luscious coconut curry soup with mixed vegetables ($6.95) is the perfect accompaniment for the tofu. For vegetarians, there is a section of the menu that offers vegan options, including tempeh. And Johanes and Shinta will cook any Indonesian dish requested if they are given enough notice. To lure in the students, they're offering a 10% discount with student ID, and there is also free Wi-Fi. Free delivery is available within a 3-mile radius of the restaurant.