Hungry Lawyer: Sofia at the Gunawarman, an oasis in Jakarta

Ika bagar: eight-hour braised beef ribs with a side of rice and sambal mash.

Tell anyone in Hong Kong that you are traveling to Jakarta and you are likely to get looks that range from the quizzical to the concerned. Frequent comments include: why are you going there; are you going for work; why don’t you go to Bali; and what is there to do in Jakarta anyway? For many years, I too had assiduously avoided the capital of Indonesia, the most populous Muslim majority nation and the fourth most populous nation overall. The traffic was said to be dire, there had been those hotel bombings some years ago and of late there are reports of a creeping extremism in this historically moderate nation. Nonetheless, when some friends asked me to tag along and explore what this sprawling capital has to offer I put my trepidations aside.

Having now visited, I can confirm that the traffic is indeed quite wretched. Thankfully, however, there haven’t been bombings of late and the general mood felt quite relaxed (although we did visit before Governor Ahok was sentenced). There aren’t a huge amount of traditional tourist destinations in Jakarta, it’s true, but the old Dutch colonial center of Kota is atmospheric with much potential for further development and re-development. There were also museums, excellent food and, in the quieter locale of Bogor just an hour from central Jakarta, a lovely botanical garden.

What stood out most during the trip; however, was the wonderful boutique hotel the Gunawarman and its bar/restaurant Sofia, both of which opened last year. The Gunawarman is located on Jalan Gunawarman, near the Senopati neighborhood of Jakarta, in a low-rise edifice designed in classic European style, complete with columns and capitals.

A bedroom at the boutique Gunawarman hotel.

The rooms at the hotel are attractive, with slightly different themes on each floor.  I stayed on a second floor room which featured dark wood paneling, marble floors and a traditional porcelain tub for around HKD1,000 per night (before tax). The hotel contains a plush private club in the basement called Csaba for in-house guests and members, the perfect place for a tipple and a cigar far away from the crowded streets above.

Csaba, the plush private club in the Gunawarman’s basement.

Entering the restaurant Sofia on the main floor, one is first greeted by a delicious looking pastry counter, followed by a wooden bar and upholstered couches to enjoy your cocktail. Deeper into the high ceilinged room is a comfortable dining area, where breakfast, lunch and dinner are served. Breakfast, typically included in the cost of a room, consists of well-prepared Western classics like eggs benedict, omelets, scrambles and soft boiled eggs with soldiers (those strips of toast to sop up the yolk), plus a de rigeur nasi goreng. The absence of a breakfast buffet befits the relaxed mood of the boutique hotel and ensures that one doesn’t depart for the day so full that the delicious Indonesian food around town can’t be enjoyed.

The lunch and dinner menu at Sofia is a mix of European and Indonesian dishes. The food is not so otherworldly that it’s a place to go for food alone — the best local food was of course found outside the hotel and the European food was good, but not spectacular. The real draw is the colonial design and classy, tropical atmosphere at the Gunawarman itself. It is an oasis in the city, a respite where one can relax in an environment that is luxurious but not ostentatiously so.

On the night we dined at Sofia, I had the Gruyere Cheese Puff, Truffle Scent (HKD55) as a starter. It was a pleasant piece of bread with a good flavor from the Gruyere but lacking in truffle. As a main, I had an Indonesian dish, the Iga Bakar (HKD108) – eight-hour braised beef ribs, cooked with local herbs and spices — accompanied by white rice and a spicy sambal mash.

Ika bagar: eight-hour braised beef ribs with a side of rice and sambal mash.

This dish was excellent. The melt-in-your-mouth tender beef slid off the bone and was seasoned with an aromatic but not overpowering spice mix. It felt indulgent not from the addition of a rich coconut sauce or other heavy gravy, but due to the quality of the slow-cooked ribs themselves.

The lemon meringue tart was a good dessert for sharing.

If you aren’t full from dinner, you will be sorely tempted by the beautiful pastries on display. The lemon meringue tart (HKD17) is attractively presented, with meringue rows atop an ample quantity of thick and tart lemon filling bounded by a perfectly browned pie crumble; a good dessert to share. The peanut butter and jam donuts (HKD16) had tempted me the whole stay with their plump shape and peanut-colored icing. When I finally gave in and ordered one, I was a little disappointed that the dough itself was too airy, the quantity of jam inside too limited and the icing was actually a heavy peanut butter rather than a lighter, sweeter peanut butter-flavored icing as I had imagined.

Peanut butter and jam donuts and other pastries.

The Gunawarman is not perfect or without flaws. Jakarta is not a destination that will soon replace Bangkok or Bali for frequent Southeast Asian visits. But, should you find yourself in Jakarta for work or otherwise, you should get out and look around beyond the confines of the five-star hotel brands and the air-conditioned shopping malls. There are sights (and sites) to be seen, food to be eaten and, at the Gunawarman, a feeling of sophistication and quality all at quite a reasonable price. It might just be worth a trip of its own.

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