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How NUSA Turned Indonesian Cooking into Fine Dining

NUSA Indonesian Gastronomy gives heritage cuisine fine-dining poise, deploying ravishing contemporary touches in a colonial house and with a table d’hôte menu.

Photo by Bagus Tri Laksono

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Few expect that Indonesia might be one of the leading lights of gourmet dining. However, the husband-and-wife owners of NUSA Indonesian Gastronomy in Kemang, South Jakarta–chef Ragil Imam Wibowo and architect Mei Batubara–have given Indonesia’s food-sharing culture a fine dining flair to showcase indigenous ingredients in a 1922 colonial house.

The couple decided to give the vintage house a twist, inspired by their local menu. Architect Mei conceptualized the interior design by devising retro-turned-modern rattan furniture to match marble-top tables. Exclusively serving dinner, NUSA has 36 seats in dining area and 15 seats in lounge room that are prepared for after-dinner sessions.

Chef Ragil is a five-time winner of the Western food cooking competition Allez Cuisine. He also has a long list of passion projects, from Warung Pasta to the Asian bistro Ginger Li and the Ancol beach seafood restaurant Segarra. Mei, meanwhile, is the designer behind the interiors of the restaurants.

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That evening in the dining room, the chef presented four dishes. The first was an amuse bouche of dishes from West Sumatra, Jakarta’s Betawi people and Jailolo, North Maluku. “Our ingredients are 99.9 percent locally sourced. We believe that Indonesia needs a showroom for its incredible ingredients. This restaurant tells the edible story of Indonesia,” the chef said.

The long, narrow dining area, which hosts seven tables, is bathed in light from Art Deco windows and overlooks a sloping garden, where wrought-iron tables and chairs form an ersatz smoking area. Around the side of the house is Ragil’s herb garden, where he cultivates spices and herbs he has collected from his journeys.

A long Mahoni-root driftwood lighting fixture hangs from the center of the exposed ceiling in the dining room. Below is a waist-high wooden table, dividing the dining area into two sections. On the table, Indonesian spices, such as nutmeg flowers and Javanese peppers are playfully and creatively displayed. “The main idea is to modernize Indonesian’s heritage, from a culinary perspective to an interior perspective,” Mei said.

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On the right from the foyer, walls are painted grey, creating a smooth transition into the lounge located beside it. The space is dominated by grey tones and is filled with wooden Art-Deco-style armchairs. The lounge allows the restaurant to shift guests to a comfortable space to enjoy dessert, while freeing up tables in the dining room for new patrons.

Mei, who designed the chairs and the interior, says that the star of the show is always Ragil’s cuisine. After five years of research on traditional recipes and local ingredients across the archipelago, he has devised for Nusa a 40-item seasonal menu that highlights a particular area of Indonesia every month.

It’s no surprise then that NUSA’s kitchen is bigger than its service area. Boasting a 150 sqm, two-level building, the kitchen retains traditional cooking technology. Ragil has collected diverse tools during his journeys around the archipelago, from a traditional langsam rice cooker, a giant cobek traditional stone mortar and pestle and a traditional clay stove designed to cook Balinese chicken.

The kitchen is separated into three parts: A front, where drinks are prepared, a middle on the ground floor, for cooking, and a top floor for keeping fresh ingredients.

“Chef Ragil designed the kitchen himself because he knows the workflow best,” Mei says. It is the only part of the restaurant that she did not design.

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After the appetizer, Chef Ragil presented us with Buntil Udang from Banyumas, Central Java. The main course featured steamed potato leaves with homemade salted fish, grated coconut, spicy paste and served with sustainable tiger prawns.

“The challenge is it all depends on the availability of the ingredients. For example, at the moment, Pelawan mushrooms, for our main course dish, are not available due to the weather,” Chef Ragil said. The mushrooms only grow in Pelawan Forest on Bangka Island, off Sumatra. The pinkish mushrooms must survive the dry season for at least three months and one week of rain. The mushrooms can cost up to Rp 3 million per kilogram.

The last course is the famous Minangkabau dish bubur kampiun, a sweet mix of rice espuma, tapioca pearls, sweet potato dumpling, srikaya pudding and pandan flavored gelato. For the Minangkabau, it was known as breakfast meal, until Chef Ragil transformed it into dessert.

Servers explain the stories behind each dish along with its cultural background. Ingredients are carefully selected from local farmers, produced in particular areas and have Indications Geographical (IG) certification.

Before the lounge is an immense dark wood library and reception area where the couple plan to showcase Indonesian products, artisanal crops and handicrafts. In the future, the couple wants to support Indonesia’s culinary industry through weekend farmer’s markets and cooking classes.

“For us, it is important to bring local products here and sell them,” Ragil says. “The reason is simply because the artists and farmers deserve to be introduced and the world needs to know that Indonesia is uniquely diverse.”

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