Review: Java Restaurant (Sydney, NSW)

151 Avoca Street
Randwick NSW 2031
+61 2 9398 6990

In the late 1990s, my parents would pack us all in the car (kids, clothes, esky and bottles of sambal) and do the annual 10-hour drive from Melbourne to Sydney. Sometimes it’d be just the five of us, my parents, my two siblings and myself; sometimes, another Indonesian family would tag along (these trips were usually much more fun). As you can guess, these were the good ol’ days before domestic budget airlines so this annual pilgrimage usually took a lot of planning. So why did we drive to Sydney every summer?

For Indonesian food.

Yes, folks. Indonesian food. Back in those days, Melbourne didn’t have many Indonesian restaurants let alone good ones. Now, there are heaps of Indonesian restaurants in Melbourne and some of them are even quite decent (though if you ask my mother, she may not agree with you). But back then, the only way my deprived parents could get their Indonesian food fix was to go to Sydney. As a teenager, I disliked these trips as much as I disliked Indonesian food. Since then, I’ve matured (or I’d like to think!) and I often get cravings for home cooked Indonesian food especially since I no longer live with my parents. And now that I’m based in Sydney, I’ve made it my aim to revisit those Indonesian restaurants I used to visit back when the Backstreet Boys, Ricky Martin and Sugar Ray were killing it on the charts and when J.Lo was still known as Jennifer Lopez.

A few weeks ago, I was given a list of Indonesian restaurants to try by some fellow Indonesian friends. About 90% of them were new restaurants, ones that my parents had never been to (we stopped doing these trips in the early 2000s). There were restaurants that specialised in gado-gado and restaurants that focused on noodles. I was excited to try them all. Unfortunately, most of them were closed for several weeks during the most recent Christmas break except for Java Restaurant. And that’s where I was almost two weeks ago, eighteen years after my first visit.

After a splash at Tamarama Beach, Bean and I drove to the 30-year-old restaurant in Randwick for an early lunch. Because this visit was during the holidays, they had skeleton staff there so the food took a while. That said, the service was friendly, the bill was cheap and we weren’t in any real rush to leave (and me to get back to work) so no complaints there.

I’m not normally one to order satays at Indonesian restaurants, especially when they go for $12.90 for four pieces like they did here. But Bean loves his skewered meats and admittedly, I was curious to see how Java’s pork satays tasted. Marinated in sweet spices and lots of kecap manis, they were tasty though I found their homemade peanut sauce perhaps a bit too sweet and one dimensional for my liking.

Satay babi manis (four pieces, $12.90)

I was going to order Java’s signature rice dish of nasi rames (steamed white rice served with gado-gado, beef rendang, chilli egg, fried chicken and prawn cracker) but I ended up going for the nasi kuning instead – it’s so hard to say no to yellow rice flavoured with coconut, lemongrass and coconut cream. My nasi kuning came with a piece of Indonesian fried chicken, empal goreng (kind of like a beef jerky), beef floss, teri kacang (fried anchovies with peanuts), cucumber and sambal terasi (shrimp paste chilli). For the same price as four pieces of satays, I thought it was a great value meal and I loved that I got to sample a bit of everything. Is it the best nasi kuning I’ve had? No way, the chicken was little bit too stringy and dry and the empal could have done with a bit more flavour. That said, it did the job just fine.

Nasi kuning ($12.90)

Not pictured was Bean’s beef rendang ($15.90). To be honest, I wasn’t expecting too much from this dish as I haven’t really had a good beef rendang at a restaurant but I was surprised at how tasty Java’s version was. Rich and full of flavour, this dish had the perfect ratio of spicy, sweet, salty and sour (thanks to the liberal use of lemongrass). When poured over some steamed rice, it went down a treat.

I’m usually one to pass on dessert but when I saw they had es bumi hangus on the menu, I couldn’t resist. Es bumi hangus is an epic Indonesian shaved ice dessert consisting of avocado pieces, grass jelly, young coconut, palm seed, lychee, fermented black sticky rice, palm sugar, coconut cream and condensed milk. According to my mother, this popular dessert comes from her hometown (after I did a quick Google search, I found that its real birthplace is a town a few hundred kilometres away from her hometown). Given that it was a hot day, this dessert went down a treat. Bean, however, refused to give it a go (Europeans, seriously).

Es Bumi Hangus ($6)

To be honest, Java wasn’t on the top of my list of Indonesian restaurants in Sydney to try. If it weren’t for the fact that other restaurants were closed during Christmas, I wouldn’t have ended up here. Java’s food is generally decent but the problem I found with it was that the menu was so long that it was hard for the kitchen to focus on just one (or several dishes) and do them well – think back to those suburban Chinese restaurants with 300-item-long menus. In saying that, Java deserves kudos for sticking around for so long (more than 30 years apparently!) in a competitive market where nowadays restaurants would be lucky to survive more than five years.