Harum Manis: Javanese Cuisine

We have a new restaurant attempting to provide an authentic representation of Indonesian heritage and food culture. Following on the heels of recent openings such as Bungai Rampai, Lara Djonggrang and Kembang Goela, Harum Manis is now the latest addition to the competition. The name “Harum Manis” actually comes from a sweet cotton candy that is native to Indonesia, usually made fresh and popular among children for its crispiness and mild sweet flavor.

Founder and co-owner Chris Janssens, the head chef of next-door neighbor, Cassis — and former chef at the Dharmawangsa hotel — hails from Belgium. He has done well to turn Cassis into one of the top bistros in Jakarta and has decided to follow up his success by trying his hand at Indonesian cuisine. And while Chris is hands on at Cassis, the strategy is different at Harum Manis. This time it’s not about the style of one chef, but more about a selection of recipes that represent Javanese food culture.

The design of the restaurant uses the Javanese style of dark and bold characteristics but with a modern touch of light and air to give it a contemporary feel. The structure of the establishment is primarily composed of wood with all-new, custom-made furniture and fixtures to bring an old style back to life.

Harum Manis stills needs a little time to find its feet. It has just opened its doors but the official opening is only in February. That said, I was delighted to find some gems on the menu that are worth the visit. Sometimes it’s the simpler things in life that keep you satisfied.

When ordering the starters, one cannot miss the Balita-Balita, a traditional dish of crunchy juvenile fish served with a fierce green chili sauce. Scrumptious in its simplicity, you will find yourself ordering more than one serving of this dish. The philosophy behind Harum Manis reveals itself in the quest to serve the finest Javanese specialties using superior ingredients.

This can be seen in the cuisine served, as you can see a concerted effort to make sure the soups are not too oily. I am always a little hesitant to order a sop kambing (lamb soup) or sop iga sapi (braised beef rib soup) at certain Indonesian restaurants, as there is a tendency to leave the fat in the soup, making it viscous, dense and unhealthy. I was glad to see that this was not the case at Harum Manis.

Where I was disappointed was with my main course, the bebek gondorasan bakar (char-grilled duck). Always a big fan of grilled duck, I found this dish undercooked. After a few attempts at cutting the duck with my knife and failing I gave up sadly. Until they sort this problem out, I would best recommend sticking with the ayam asem asem blimbing wuluh — a light and fresh curry of free-range chicken served with young star fruit along with green chili and sweet basil.

Also appreciated are the grilled satays. There is a considerable selection of skewers from the char grill that are done well, with options including squid, prawns, chicken, lamb and even wagyu, which is sold at the reasonable price of Rp 98,000 per plate.

Most of us enjoy our satay done on the side streets and warungs of Jakarta. I am usually disappointed with restaurant versions of this hawker-style food, with the tendency to overcook or use the wrong cuts of meat and fish in an attempt to up-market the satay. I’m glad that Harum Manis stays closer to the original.

Desserts are done well, in particular try the colenak — a rich tape topped with banana, sweetened grated coconut and palm sugar confit jack fruit, a dish Chris Janssens describes as “not for the faint-hearted”.

Harum Manis is not the finished article just yet. I have a feeling it will get better and look forward to trying it again in a couple of months. Prices are reasonable with appetizers starting from Rp 22,000 and main courses starting at Rp 48,000. It’s a big restaurant, with a capacity of 160 persons with two private rooms and one semi-private room which can hold 16 persons.

A plus point is the effort to use proper wine glasses. If you want to open a proper Indonesian restaurant with efforts to have classy cutlery, furniture and fixtures, don’t go cheap on the wine glasses! (Bungai Rampai please take note).

But do give Harum Manis a visit, it’s worth the effort, with earnest service staff and an honest effort to keep the customers expectations at heart with good cuisine and an inviting atmosphere.

* Average
** Good
*** Excellent
**** Extraordinary

Harum Manis
Pavillion Apartments
Jl. Mas Mansyur Kav. 24
Tel. 5794 1727

Reviewed by Aman Khan