Food & Drink » Restaurant Review

The School of Sambal

Padi provides a taste of home for Indonesian expats. For the rest of us, it's a great introduction to the fiery pleasures of Sumatran-style cooking.



At first, I couldn't decide whether Padi, the new Indonesian restaurant in Berkeley's Elmwood district, passed my Eyeball Test of Authenticity for Asian restaurants — that arbitrary set of criteria wherein I consider, for instance, whether a place has mostly an Asian clientele (it did) and whether chopsticks are routinely offered (they weren't). Mostly, I was struck by how the former home of Holy Land, an Israeli restaurant, still looked the same — more like a falafel joint than anything distinctly Asian, with tile tabletops and the faux balcony windows that were originally meant to evoke Greece or rural Israel or somewhere.

But what do I know about authenticity? It turns out forks and spoons are the traditional Indonesian dining implements. And after two excellent meals — dish after dish that was fragrant with fried shallot and shrimp paste and, best of all, the restaurant's house-made red chili sauce — I was willing to take chef-owner Jimmy Sujanto at his word when he touted Padi as one of the few places in the Bay Area where Indonesian expats can get food that tastes like it does back in the motherland.

Padi's stock in trade is its sambal, the fiery chile-based condiment that Indonesians slather on everything like ketchup. There are probably hundreds of different variations in Indonesia: red ones, green ones, ones that are sweet and tangy, and others that are intensely pungent. Padi's thick red sambal is the version known as sambal blanchan (or belacan) — a delicious, and seriously spicy, blend of freshly ground Thai chilies, lime juice, tomatoes, and shrimp paste (for just a hint of fishy funk).

The sambal plays the leading role in one of Padi's best dishes, ayem penyet: pieces of chicken that are fried until the skin crisps, then smashed — with the back of a heavy cleaver, I presume — and smothered in sambal, which penetrates all the crevices of the still-juicy meat. The sauce is great, too, on a plate of hard-boiled eggs that have been batter-fried — pure comfort food, especially over white rice.

Here's a pro tip: Unless you're a hard-core chile fanatic (or a glutton for punishment), think twice before you request anything "crazy spicy" (as per the menu description). I'm not a total spice coward, but the "medium" level hit the upper limits of my tolerance — I was drenched in sweat by the end of the meal. The higher the spice level, the less tomato is added to cut into the chiles; the "crazy spicy" version is pure unadulterated heat. (Not coincidentally, Sujanto hails from the island of Sumatra, where the food tends to be spicier, and less sweet, than what's served in the capital city Jakarta — if you're curious about that other style, head to Jayakarta, on University Avenue.)

Fortunately, even if you're a spice wimp, Padi also serves a number of excellent dishes with little to no chile kick. The house specialty is the bakso kampung: handmade beef meatballs served in a clear broth with earthy fried shallots and tender Chinese greens — a lovely soup for a cold day. And the variously-shaped fried fish cakes, which Sujanto makes from scratch with Spanish mackerel, were chewy and succulent, served in the traditional Palembong style — over noodles and sliced cucumber, with a sweet and (not very) spicy vinegar dipping sauce on the side.

Slightly less successful dishes: The beef rendang, a classic coconut-based curry, was slowly simmered, but the cut of beef used was so lean that the end product was more dry than melt-in-your-mouth tender. The flavor was good, though — heavy on the star anise and slightly reminiscent of beef jerky. Meanwhile, the udang panggang (grilled marinated shrimp) had a nice smoky char, but the shrimp were cooked until somewhat dry and chewy, leading me to think that moistness isn't the quality most prized in Indonesian meat preparation. The texture grew on me (again, think shrimp jerky), but at $12.95 for three small skewers, it isn't one of the better deals on the menu.

Sujanto sources all of his beef and chicken from Halal butcher shops. The Halal designation is also why the restaurant doesn't serve alcohol, though Sujanto said he's looking into getting a license so diners can bring their own. (The spicier dishes beg for cold beer, though a glass of Teh Botol — a bottled iced jasmine tea popular in Indonesia — also makes a fine accompaniment.)

Padi is also a good place for vegetarian diners, as meatless dishes comprise more than a quarter of the menu. I especially liked the mie goreng kampung, an addictive Indonesian-Chinese stir-fried noodle dish: chewy egg noodles tossed with Chinese broccoli, bean sprouts, fried shallots, and kecap manis (a slightly sweet Indonesian soy sauce). It's a nice counterpoint if you've ordered mostly spicy dishes.

Meanwhile, for solo diners, the daily rice plate ($8.95) is an excellent option — a little taste of four different menu items: some kind of meat, one of those fried boiled eggs, a soup, and maybe an Indonesian-style potato pancake.

One minor quibble: The kitchen turns out orders quickly, and if you don't specify otherwise the food tends to come out all at once. That's great for family-style dining, but not so great when four dishes take up nearly every inch of real estate on a two-top. If Padi ever moves to bigger digs, the first order of business should be to get big round tables fitted with Lazy Susans. (Then there'll be no question it's an authentic Asian restaurant.)

For my last meal at Padi, I ordered grilled plantains topped with cheddar cheese, sweet condensed milk, and melted chocolate sprinkles — apparently a popular dessert in Indonesia. The nicest thing I can say about it is that it wasn't gross — the savoriness of the cheese working somehow. But, as with many of the dishes at Padi, I was glad that I had tried something new.

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