I haven’t been out much as work and life sometimes get in the way; also, I usually end up giving up and camping out at home after giving serious consideration to brave the traffic and ever-impending evening storms of this year’s wet season. I’m a simple expat and can find happiness with my feet propped on the ottoman binge-watching Netflix, an aerated bottle of 2014 Australian Shiraz by my side with some homemade patê topped and quince paste smeared over fresh baguette slices.
Over the past year, there have been quite a few very good Korean barbeque outlets setting up shop in Jakarta, and I’ve been meaning to try them all. That, and the fact that I’ve made a few good Korean friends here have pulled me out of my Netflix rabbit hole and I have been going out a lot more.
Korean barbeque and dining in the environs speak to me mostly as a diner first before the restaurant critic. I don’t need to dress up, I eat as much of the good stuff as I want and I get to cook many items for my personal taste and preference. The atmosphere at most of these types of restaurants is casual as there are numerous private dining rooms for the after-work crowd or more well-heeled groups. I feel totally at home rocking into the main dining room with sandals, a pair of jeans and a stained t-shirt. Nobody even gives you a second glance and most people know that by the end of the night you always smell like a combination of sauces, garlic, oil and smoke from the grill anyway so why bother even showering or dressing up in the first place? A good Korean barbecue restaurant can make a casual night out completely satisfying as there is usually something for everyone, even the vegetarian in your group.
Cheongdam Garden’s popularity is so great within the Asian expat community that it is usually booked out a day in advance on the weekends. In the main dining room, the languages are mostly Korean with a smattering of Japanese and Indonesian, but hardly any English or European. On the most recent visit there, I think my party was the only group of bules seated.
The thing about this place is that once you make it in (this is no easy feat when speaking over the phone trying to make reservations in amplified pidgin English with a staff member who clearly doesn’t speak a lick of it and is trying to respond in kind with very limited Korean), it is a wonderland of high-grade, barbecued meat and traditional Korean cuisine. The Formica tabletops and vinyl chairs are easily excused once they roll out the most amazing Salchisal (chuck flap tail) you have ever tasted.
It’s so incredibly marbled like true wagyu-grade beef that the staff proudly bring over the raw beef so that everyone at the table can marvel at its beauty before they hasten back to grill it (or you can also grill at your own table). The lamb chops were succulent as well.
Grilled pork belly, for the uninitiated, may sound a bit on the fatty side. However, it is brilliantly prepared and sliced to optimize caramelization and allows the Maillard reaction to form beautiful char on the belly slices. What you get is juicy slices of not-too-fat pork belly. At Cheongdam Garden, most of the selection of meat comes un-marinated so that diners can taste the inherent flavours of each pick. Some, such as the galbi (short ribs) and bulgogi (thinly sliced lean beef) do have a marinated option. There is a spicy, fermented soybean paste dip as well as a seasoned sesame oil. I was excited about the Yukhoe (Korean steak tartare), but although it was lovely to look at and the beef used was tender enough, I didn’t care for the overly sweet dressing. What a shame, really, as it could have been great.
The Bude Jjigae (army base stew) contains all the requisites: chopped Spam, hot dog bits, macaroni, kimchee, onions, seafood, ramen and topped with homemade tofu. All served bubbling hot over a burner on the table. This is the perfect food for many a wet, rainy season evening. It is heavy on the fermented chilli paste (gochujang) and dried chilli flakes so one should be careful when taking sips on the soup lest you catch a few of those chilli flakes in the throat. The selection of hot pots, stews and braises are plenty; this is perhaps one thing that makes Cheongdam Garden stand out from their competition, of which there are many, along Jalan Senopati. Cold noodles are also worth trying; they have a refreshingly tart Mulnaengmyeon (chilled, chewy, buckwheat noodles).
The complimentary banchan (Korean side dishes) are plentiful, and there are some real winners in the bunch. The braised quail eggs in soy sauce are delicious, with the eggs resembling well-brined olives at first glance. The kimchee young garlic chive stalks are also more-ish; young garlic chives always tasting so much sweeter and less pungent than the mature bulbs.
Cheongdam Garden is worth a visit with some friends who don’t mind seeing you a little grubby, but who are all hungry and interested in putting away some very good food.