Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A Visit to Old Batavia

Ah, summer lull seems to be affecting my blog lately. Please pardon the extended absence of any update. A week ago I returned from my S.E. Asian trip on a family visit and to attend various familial events (1 year ceremony of my mother's passing was one of them). Since returning to the States, I have only caught up with the blogging world.

[Announcement: T Ching is currently conducting an online tasting of 2 teas: the 2007 Meghma Estate Nepalese Oolong and a 2007 2nd flush Darjeeling white tea called the Kashanganj Snow Bud. It's not too late to participate.]

I had an eventful trip, during which most of my time was spent with immediate family and relatives. Every morning while there, I found myself mostly brewing the Meghma Estate Nepalese oolong (see previous post) that I brought along from the States or, on occasions, a Wuyi Dahongpao oolong supplied by my tea-drinker aunt. The inhabitants of my parents' home, which include my father, sisters, some guests from China, and my aunt who visits every morning found the Nepalese oolong quite delicious and most welcome with breakfast.

And as usual, whenever I visit my hometown my aunt offered me a lot of her own tea to bring back to the States. I declined most that she offered -- not because I was disinterested -- but because of my current oversupply of tea. I did accept a small amount of Tieguanyin oolong that she apparently got from Best Tea House in Hong Kong and 2 types of highly roasted Wuyi oolongs from a tea store in Singapore.

Spare personal time presented itself only once, and I made good of it by visiting a Chinese chain teashop called Teh 63 in a mall to re-supply my dwindling stock of the
Jawa (Javanese) oolong. I enjoy this tea quite a bit and it costs a decent $5 per 100 grams. It's not overly complex or fine, I think, but it really does the job well of giving me satisfaction whenever I drink it. It's great for everyday drinking, by gongfu method or thrown into a large teapot.

(Teh 63 shop in the Pluit mall)

The only drawback when I bought this tea was that none of the very polite salesladies had any idea which harvest period the tea is from. The packaging leaves no clue whatsoever...not even a simple production date stamp exists. The only defense that the salesladies provided me was freshness is guaranteed since the tea is vacuum-packed. Perhaps. It may well be last year's or older stock, which in itself may not be a problem with certain teas. However, since this Javanese oolong is the greener, less-oxidized type, freshness is key. I did ask for a tasting, and it tasted just right. Whether or not the sample that they brew in-store and the ones I bought come from the same batch is hard to know. So I took my chances with the 1.5 kg I got (most of which will be gifted away).

In the realm of loose leaf tea shopping, I personally think vintage information is very important. It could mean a world of difference in taste and quality, and especially so for green, white, yellow and the less-oxidized oolong teas. First flush Darjeeling teas, too -- despite their very high oxidation level -- have been said to be at their best in the first 6 months or so after release. Storage condition plays a factor, of course.

On the other hand, the recurring wisdom that I hear from at least 2 experienced sources recently tend to suggest that all good teas will age finely, no matter what kind. The guideline that delicate green, yellow and white teas have a short shelf-life is just that, a mere guideline. Exceptions abound. Over time, the taste of tea will transform as they age, and whether one likes how the tea tastes then is a matter of personal preference (as long as it's not obviously stale from poor storage and excessive exposure). So they say. In the meantime, until I know better by fist hand experience, I am sticking to the general guideline when shopping for tea.

On the wine front, my cousins took me to several trendy restaurants and wine bars in uptown Jakarta. One of my favorite trendy Indonesian restaurants to chill with my friends and family is a place called Lara Djonggrang in the Menteng area of Jakarta. The interior of the restaurant is designed in the Javanese and various oriental traditions with a modern and soulful twist. It's a very inviting, warm and relaxing place, if not a bit mystical too. The lighting and the candle fires add to the exotic ambience. Lara Djonggrang has become a popular destination for foreign expatriates. Most locals would perhaps find it a bit pretentious and costly. I personally think it's a cleverly designed place with an interesting menu. The food is great and authentic, especially the chili sauces, which made me sweat and gasping for air. Yeah...I love spicy food!

wine and cocktail list is quite good, too, living up to the expectation for being a classy dining establishment that foreigners as well as the westernized locals could appreciate. For the wines, markup averages around 200% - 300% of off US retail prices, which is about what good restaurants in Los Angeles charge. A 1997 Chateau Margaux, for example, costs Rp. 4,200MM (around $450), which is 2.5x the average retail price in the U.S. Considering the high national tax rate on imported alcohol, it is rather reasonable (wines are known to be notoriously overpriced in Indonesia due to heavy taxation and import restrictions).

On a visit to another clubby wine bar called Cork & Screw (tongue-in-cheek), rows of wooden wine bins much like the bins you see at Costco greeted me upon entering the front door. The idea is that you pick the bottle you'd like to have opened and present it to a waiter. At 10pm when we arrived, the place was filled with well-heeled locals and foreign expatriates who seemed to be denizens of the adjacent corporate buildings that house many international firms.

The place is nicely appointed and the interior felt cutting edge and modern. Later towards the evening at around 11 pm, the music started blaring at an ear-drum splitting level. No one got on top of the table to dance while swilling Penfolds Grange. It was Thursday night. In fact, the crowd started to thin out as soon as the music blared like a maniac. It was rather strange for a restaurant / wine bar to do that. But maybe it fits well with the weekend crowd. My cousin told me that Cork & Screw is the happening place in town right now, requiring a 2-week advance reservation for a table. I think next time I'm in Jakarta I'd need 2 weeks to consider whether it's worth going at all, if I'm invited to go there again.


The wine selections and the prices were a killjoy. Having just dined elsewhere, we didn't try the food there. Most of the wines are middle-of-the-road stuff priced at top-of-the-line level. The average markup over the US retail price was about 500 to 600 percent! We broke open 2 bottles: a 2005 Chilean pinot noir by Tabali and a 2006 McLaren Vale (Australia) GSW blend (Grenache, Shiraz and Mouvedre) called Stump Jump by d'Arenberg. Both wines were so-so, with the pinot noir bordering on being boring. The Stump Jump was average and quite pleasant for an $8 wine (retail price), but not for the $40 my cousin paid for it. Yeah, good thing my cousin was paying. (Thanks cuz...I'll bring for you nice wines on my next visit.)

Most noticably, Cork & Screw carries a lot of Australian wines but very lacking in any Bordeaux and Italian wines in general. I was hoping to treat my cousin and sister to a decent 2nd Growth or a Chianti. Driven by my curiousity, I striked a friendly conversation with one of the knowledgable waiters. He told me that there is a shortage of better wines in general in Jakarta due to importing restrictions recently placed by the byzantine bureaucracy of the government agencies. Politics as usual. It's merely a problem easily solved when enough money has changed hands. Instead of berries and currants, wine smells like dough (a lot of dough) in this third world country, and those in power must have their beaks whetted first. Without a trade baron, a minister, a military general or a mafia godfather as an ally, you may as well forget about doing any wine-related business in Indonesia. If this is not a true statement, at least that's the common mindset there, so I've been told.

Some shots of favorite foods I had while I was there. I think I've gained some weight.