For more than a decade, Asian and Pacific Rim cuisine have had a presence in Lexington. In general, quality has ranged from superior (Japanese) to good (Thai and Korean) to tragically underwhelming (Chinese). But while waiting and watching for a higher bar, one reflecting the exotic diversity of regionalism, technique and ingredients from that part of the world, I was caught entirely off guard by Orchid Flower, Lexington's and perhaps Kentucky's first Indonesian restaurant, complete with a competent sushi bar.
It would be unrealistic to cover, under one roof, the complex cuisine of the Indonesian archipelago's many thousand islands; thus, some classics are absent, including the labor- intensive but spectacular nasi kuning lengkap, a towering inverted cone of yellow rice, ringed with a rainbow of nuts and shrimp, vegetables and eggs, and whatever else pleases the chef; and gado-gado, what satay might be if it were a full-on composed salad.
Never mind. There's sufficient pleasure in the simpler samples of Indonesian finger food, as well as salads, noodles and grilled meats, all at bargain prices.
Start with bala-bala ($5 for four pieces), crisp fritters of mixed vegetables with onion and cabbage in a salty-savory batter. Also fried, but somehow not heavy, are krokets ($6 for two pieces), savory sautéed ground beef amended with carrots and encased in a goose egg-size coating of mashed potatoes. For something even lighter, try martabak ($5 for three pieces), packets of won ton skins stuffed with sautéed ground beef and scallions. Easy to eat and almost dainty.
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Because the traditional hot sauces add authenticity and excitement to all these flavors, be sure to request dishes of the fiery sambals made by owner Wiwi Harrison. They give me an extra reason for living.
Two of the three entrées I tried are familiar around Lexington, but the renditions here have an Indonesian flair and are, well, better.
One of them is satay, which is usually stringy meat plastered to a stick. At Orchid Flower, you get five skewers of fork-tender chicken — salty, sweet and tangy with lime juice and peanut sauce — that melts in your mouth. This dish ($8) is served with miso soup, a simple and probably superfluous salad, and eight lontong — rice cakes steamed in a banana leaf and sliced into small discs.
I think the perfect accompaniment on the side was kecap manis, a slick, sweet soy sauce that some consider ketchup's precursor.
Kecap manis also transforms the enormous Yamien noodle bowl ($10) from oily lo mein into a complex, hearty meal with a sautéed julienne of chicken and mushroom slices, topped with caramelized fried shallots and zesty cilantro. Believe it or not, this dinner dish includes a soup of gossamer-light shrimp and chicken dumplings with dense meatballs. Talk about two meals for the price of one.
The vegetarian option, lotek ($7.50), will be new to most diners. Prepared tableside, this Indonesian "coleslaw" of steamed carrots, squash, cabbage and green beans is tossed in a dressing of peanuts, ground in a stone bowl before you with pleasant conversation on the side, and whisked together with kencur powder (like a mild ginger) and lime juice until creamy. After lotek, the mayonnaise version of coleslaw will seem pretty bland.
Primed for Indonesian food, I hardly noticed the sushi bar, but if my brief encounter with tuna tataki ($7 for six slices) was representative, it's worth a go (although I really want nasi kuning lengkap). The meaty fish was served with an inventive relish of olives, avocado and dice of pineapple that was a little unfocused for my taste but at least gets credit for gumption.
The restaurant's selection of sake, good Asian beers and fruit drinks all go well with the menu. There also are some local house wines, but they don't hold a candle to the ideal partner for this food, Bonny Doon's Pacific Rim Riesling (a reasonable $5.50 a glass).
Orchid Flower has given Lexington a wonderful introduction to Indonesia's rich table and I, for one, can't wait for more.
An abundant lunch for two was about $22, an equally abundant dinner for two was about $44.