Spanky's Ribs & Martinis: A 1930s diner with a modern mind
The Jakarta Post
Finding ribs that yield under a knife without the need to employ a sawing motion is a tall order in Jakarta.
Spanky's Ribs & Martinis forgoes the boiling-before-grilling routine common in local restaurants for maximum retention of the meat's natural flavor and juices.
If not for its scarlet door and tongue-in-cheek name, the restaurant, replacing now defunct gastro-pub Elbow Room, would blend unnoticeably among the Kemang shop fronts jostling for prominence.
Upon entering said door, however, it is apparent the eatery's outward indistinctness, save for the cyclops-like circular picture window on the second storey, is no semblance of the interior ' nor the hearty cuisine.
The sleek oak bar at the end of the long, narrow room, surmounted by enormous chalkboard menus enumerating over 50 martini selections, is not the room's focal point; nor is the flat screen television suspended high on the wall well above eye level.
Erasing the proverbial image of a bar as choked with cigarette smoke, too-loud music and generally non-conducive to civilized conversation, this is what makes the venue a place to mingle for families, twenty-somethings fueling up before a night of club-hopping, those who want their beer, televised soccer matches and late-night banter.
The white wainscoting, polished wood flooring and high ceiling that recall the halls of academia are made cozy with the glow of low-hanging pendant lamps, the lull of 1950s jazz and vintage-looking plywood signage peppering the walls.
'A day without sunshine is like ... you know ... night', reads one; 'Two wrongs don't make a right but they make a good excuse', another sagely advises, featuring a black-and-white photo of a grinning, buck-toothed youth, hair parted unflatteringly down the middle with its iconic cowlick projecting from the crown of his head.
The name 'Spanky's' is not a plebeian attempt at a catchy appellation. The restaurant was inspired by Hal Roach's 1930s TV show, Our Gang.
The show portrayed, for the first time in US film history, a group of friends consisting of boys, girls, African-Americans and Americans intermingling as equals, whose caricatures and comical catchphrases characterize the restaurant's artwork and menu.
Spanky's owner, Elsie Muller, describes the food as Pan Asian; although, upon examining the menu, it is not immediately obvious what this means.
The 'Spanky's Specials' include Baby Back Pork Ribs served half and full-slab; Holy Moly Chili Con Carne and Creamy Mac & Cheese, which comes in three variations ' Make it Spicy, Bacon and Mushroom or Beef and Jalapeno.
To open the meal, I sampled the spicy version, which with its ample seasoning of fine black pepper, was a better approximation of 'spicy' than at most Western restaurants where Indonesian patrons, whose tongues are inured to the inferno of sambal, fail to detect any spiciness.
The jalapenos, Muller explained, are sourced from an American farmer friend in Puncak who grows his own.
Starters range from the gravy fries ('fat daddy wedges topped with melted cheese and smothered in gravy') to the sausage sampler platter ('bites of Thai chicken, curry chicken, apple pork and spicy cajun pork').
When cravings hit, there is no earthly substitute for fried food, but you do not need to sully your palate with starch and grease.
In keeping with Muller's attempts at providing a healthier menu without skimping on indulgence, the sweet potato fries and zucchini parmesan fries curtail the bad press of french fries but are no less savory.
Made with a breadcrumb and parmesan cheese coating as thin as a butterfly wing, without any discernible grease, the zucchini fries are served with a tzatziki-like garlic yogurt sauce, whose sourness handily eliminates the need for a sprinkling of salt, allowing for the economy of sodium intake.
Desiring to simultaneously placate red-blooded meat-eaters and their potentially vegetarian companions, Muller assembled gourmet salads that could moonlight as starters and main courses so that herbivores don't feel shortchanged when dining out.
Upon tasting the greek salad, I could tell that it was not just talk. The diced onions, tomatoes, olives and zucchinis were moistened with a lemon vinaigrette dressing and feta cheese, and proved that the chemistry of tastes in a salad is determined not only by the dressing but the cut of the vegetables.
Diced into perfect bite sizes, you can spear a little of each vegetable on your fork with a cube of feta cheese to sample the combinations of all the ingredients in one bite.
There was sufficient cheese to allow for one cube per bite, unlike at many restaurants that tend to be stingy with dairy products; and despite my contentious relationship with vegetables since childhood, the greek salad proved to be my favorite dish.
As for the establishment's flagship dish: the ribs. Did it meet expectations? I was served the half-slab portion, which covered almost three quarters of the cymbal-sized dinner plate.
Upon first sinking in my knife, the meat seemed unyielding, and I anticipated a reprise of the over-cooked and under-seasoned ribs I'd learnt to stomach at lesser restaurants.
The effort required to cut it proved deceiving, however: In the mouth the meat is surprisingly soft, juicy and flavorful by dint of an adequate basting of barbeque sauce and, as Muller emphasized, no preliminary boiling.
Rib-accompanying condiments require the same astuteness as wine pairings. Those who are finicky can choose from three barbecue sauces: the 'spicy Alabama', the tangy mango chili and the Indonesian barbecue sauce made with sweet soy sauce.
Dessert was an eagerly awaited affair, as upon first scanning the menu our eyes had clapped on such delicious-sounding offerings as peach tartlet with mascarpone cheese and chocolate banoffee pie.
We tried the keylime pie; refreshing like cold lemonade with a soft custard-like consistency, avoiding the customary American cheesecake-like texture. The crust, however, could have been sweeter ' crunchiness had been sacrificed in a bid to avoid crumbliness by reducing the butter content. You win some, you lose some.
The restrained use of sugar proved favorable for the chocolate banoffee pie, which owed its flavor largely to the tiny caramelized banana cubes and unexpected chocolate KitKat pieces blanketed beneath homemade whipped cream topped with chocolate shavings.
Pebble-sized, chocolate-coated and dotted with red-and-green sprinkles, the Peanut Butter Balls might appear dainty but beware before you devour one whole: expect an outpouring of whipped cream as profuse as squirting it into your mouth straight from the canister.
The restaurant's healthy ethos and preferred use of ingredients processed in-house is especially apparent in the beverage menu.
Going beyond the typically humdrum iced lemon tea, cold beer, Coca-Cola offerings, Spanky's serves fruit and vegetable-infused drinks without the off-putting label of 'health tonics'.
The cranginger zinger, served with fresh ginger, strawberry juice and cranberry purÃ©e, is equal parts sweet, sour and peppery. If you have tasted red pepper dark chocolate before, you'll like this one.
The red cabbage patch served in a tall milkshake glass with a red cabbage leaf on top decorated with orange and white pearls, combines cranberry, pineapple and orange juice and contains slivers of sliced grapes ' thirst quenching but with a neither here nor there taste that requires an open mind to amalgamating disparate ingredients.
There is quality food to be had here, dishes you will not find elsewhere, and a real fidelity to freshness; but above average perks do not come without an above-average price.
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