Hardena does this every day. Stop in sometime during the week, and you’ll see. Just walk in, pick your plastic cutlery and a paper plate with a heaping pile of rice, and have one of the beautiful sisters top it with Surabaya classics. Sit in a rolling chair, roll yourself close, and delight in the first bite–because that bite will knock your taste buds around with every bit of gusto South Philly has running through its veins. And although they do it every day on the corner of 1754 S Hicks Street, there was something different about Saturday’s Foobooz After Dark rijsttafel dinner…
Maybe it was Joncarl Lachman’s welcoming demeanor, miraculously still running the room after an already busy Saturday night. Maybe it was Noord’s charming, candle-lit dining room, with its dark hardwoods and white table cloths. Or maybe it was the amount of love coming out of the kitchen all through the night (and into the morning). But there was something different for sure, and it was, at the very least, bewitching.
It was all very “veni, vedi, vici” as soon as the Hardena crew arrived. The mother, Ena, and her daughters, Dianna, Maylia, and Stephanie got to work swiftly—pots and pans clamoring, but they, themselves, whispering. A peppered aroma took the room over, and the diners grew hungry. So the girls sent out a salad. Selada Bangka, a fresh, chopped salad with slices of crisp cucumber, quartered orbs of hard boiled egg, and chewy tofu, doused in a peanut vinaigrette. With it, a basket of Bakwan (mixed vegetable fritters) were passed around the room in a beautiful wicker basket, placed alongside the salads on the diners’ plates. Giant platters of salad were put in the middle of the tables, and within ten minutes, most plates were being scraped for remnants.
And that was just the salad.
The real eating began about a half-hour later. Small dishes among huge dishes among giant bowls of each Indonesian delight landed, and the tables ran out of room but still the food kept coming. Bowls of acar, slivers of bright and brisk pickled vegetables, hugged bowls of beef rendang, chunks of beef stewed in coconut milk and spices. Giant plates of Pepes Ikan, or Bluefish steamed in banana leaves, yellowed by turmeric, warmed with spices, and brightened with lemongrass, kaffir leaves, candlenuts, and peppers steamed on the tables. Chewy but silky Oseng Tempe (tempeh and tofu sauteed in a sweet soy sauce) sugared our palates, while giant bowls of singkong–collard greens simmered in coconut broth–brought on smiles throughout the room.
Bowls of telor belado, hard boiled eggs in a spicy red pepper sauce made our tongues pop, and the grilled satays of ayam and kambing, chicken and lamb, brought the house down. Manners flew out the window, and diners ripped meat off sticks with their teeth, just as we were instructed to. Tiny cups of sambal, a red pepper hot sauce, and sambal kecap, chilli and herbs in a sweet soy sauce, dotted the tables, providing heat and depth to anything you decided to eat them with. And of course, krapuk, or shrimp chips, graced the tables in tiny wicker baskets, which were a beautiful addition to all of the things saucy and stewy before us. And no rijsttafel wouldn’t be complete without some rice. We had baskets of white rice and plates of nasi goreng, an Indonesian preparation of fried rice with eggs, shrimp and chicken.
The dessert duo was made up of agar agar, a palm sugar “flan” spotted with steamed coconut milk custard, and infused with pandan, and then cendol, a layered drink of palm sugar, pandan infused tapioca, and coconut milk, topped with jackfruit. But by the time the drinks were served, the diners had had too many of their own drinks, and it was close to three o’ clock in the morning. People could drink no more, even though the dessert provided some of the most interesting flavors and aromas I’ve ever encountered, and I’m confident I wasn’t the only one who thought so.
It’s interesting to see the different dynamics each collaboration brings to a dinner. The last After Dark dinner felt like a show. A journey with a beginning and end, where both chefs got to show off their ingredients and culinary skills. But this was different. This Saturday wasn’t a show. This was what Joncarl called a “love-fest”, and I couldn’t agree more. It was a love-fest between the food and the diner, a love-fest between the diners themselves, and a love-fest between Noord and Hardena—neighbors and friends in beautiful South Philadelphia. It was a glorious feast, with beautiful people, at an enchanting time of night, in a delightful restaurant overlooking Passyunk’s Singing Fountain.
Now, who’s up for Round 3?