Thursday 28 February 2013

Garage Cafe (Indonesian East Javanese)

221, Berkeley Street, Carlton, VIC 3053

Garage Cafe on Urbanspoon

This quirky licensed cafe set in a garage is a place I go sometimes for lunch meetings. However, while the food is ok - it's not always value for money and the service, while friendly, is never timely. Like the setting - the place is full of contradictions. It could do better but after all these years, still doesn't seem to have hit the right balance.

The Place
It's a garage! Big space for cars and a quarter of it fitted out as a dining space. Probably quite apt given that it is surrounded by car parks and car servicing centres and garages. However, if you are there for a meal - it's not everybody's cup of tea. It also gets ridiculously cold in winter because the heaters struggle to cope with such a big space and relatively warm in summer because the hot air doesn't have anywhere to go.

Thing to do nearby: It's a 10 - 12 minute walk to Queen Vic market in one direction and to Lygon Street in another. It is also close of The University of Melbourne.

The Food
While affordable, I don't really think you get value for money here. It's mid-range for what it's offering which is actually a pretty basic meal by and large. One word of warning... if you are a vegetable lover or vegetarian, this is seriously not the place to be. They put no focus on their vegetables at all - when you see their menu - it will say the meal is served with cabbage (one leaf), tommato (couple of slices) and cucumber (couple of slices) - they don't even call it a salad, because it's not. The Gado-Gado here is usually slightly more overdone that most places and might also not suit the Aussie tastebud. Also, in line with my other reviews - I won't order the Thai style dishes here - since it is a Javanese Restaurant - unless if you like Javanese style Thai food...

Having said that, there are a few highlights here;
Chicken Opor (pictured right) - this is the real highlight here. It's a lighlty spiced coconut milk based chicken stew East Javanese style. Really yummy and heartwarming especially in colder climes. Not spicy at all and really nicely balanced sauces - just wished there was more chicken in the serve.

Garage Full Penyet - which consists of rice, served with fried chicken and assorted meatballs and beancurd, and aforementioned vegies, can be nice. However, some would consider it a bit to dry as there's basically no sauce to go with this other than the really hot chilli sambal.

Mie Komplit - this is not bad and quite a generous serving of noodles. Ocassionally, it needs more sauce and meat, and the wontons need to be less well done. Consistency can be an issue.Some might find it a bit salty. Ok - this really doesn't sound like a recommendation does it? Well - let's say that 7/10 times, they get it right.

The most ridiculous thing here is their lemon lime bitters - costs something like $4.50!!!

The Service
The service is unfailingly polite and friendly. However, I suspect that because there never enough staff here, it is never timely unless if you are one of only 2 groups eating. if you are in a hurry... you need to forget this place and come back when you have a long meeting to get through. They are always apologetic in line with their friendliness but it doesn't always make up for the time it takes to serve up the food (especially if you are really hungry). If you are dining by yourself, bring a book.

Yet - I still go there even though it doesn't rate all that highly. It has the few dishes that I like that's served well and they are friendly. If the mood takes me for Chicken Opor and I am nearby, I would go there, knowing full well I might have to wait a while

Cultural Moment
Javanese cuisine includes a number of key dishes that might might have been given broader Indonesian/Malaysian names reflecting the dishes they resemble the most. These include:
Opor - a lightly spiced coconut milk braised dish (usually chicken or beef, ocassionally duck or beancurd) - Garage calls it a curry.
Pecel - A sauce for salads with peanuts, chilli, tamarind, palm sugar, also used in Gado Gado
Rawon - a thick black sauce/soup with buak keluak (a Southeast Asian nut - poisonous when fresh and has to be pre-treated ) spices, candlenuts, usually with beef. Buah Keluak is also used in Peranakan cooking. Garage serves this occasionally as a Special Dish.
Soto - a clear soup that can include almost any meats and combinations of vegetables - really home cooking style soup, usually found with a top thin layer of oil (where the taste is too).
Bakso - any one of the variety of meatballs. Indonenian meatballs are unlike the European style (Swedish or Italian) meatballs. It's not made from mince - more from paste of pulverised processed meat and tapioca flour, giving it a texture prized amongst Indonesians. Bakso, can range from the simple ones such as the ones made from beef, or fish, or pork to the more intricate ones, stuffed with seafood, or other meats, or even eggs. Baksos are served in soups, with rice or with many different types of noodles. It's an important part of the non-vegetarian's staple in this region. It can be deepfried, or cooked in soups.

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