Rijsttafel (pronounced rice-taffle) is a type of meal for which a brief history lesson is almost mandatory in order to understand the wheres, whys, and whats of this elaborate feast with Indonesian and Dutch influences.
This multi-course grub-fest—where 20 to 40 dishes per sitting is not uncommon—is, in my experience, extremely rare in Los Angeles. West Hollywood’s Hutchinson Cocktails & Grill is one of the only L.A. restaurants I know of that offers it. And even there, it’s available only as a 6 p.m. dinner special every second Monday of the month.
Back to that quick history lesson. During their colonization of Indonesia, the Dutch dreamed up a way to sample the massive variety of cuisine in Indonesia’s multicultural regions and islands with a multi-dish blowout based, in part, on Indonesian nasi padang banquets.
Ian and Justin Hopper, owners of Hutchinson (the restaurant is named after their grandfather Richard Hutchinson Hopper), carefully clarify that rijsttafel (meaning “rice table”) is not authentic or traditional to Indonesia. In fact, it is a culinary relic of the Dutch colonial period and virtually extinct in Indonesia with only a few high-end restaurants capable of serving the extravagant meal. While rijsttafel originated in Indonesia, it has essentially relocated to the Netherlands along with the colonialists and Indonesian expats.
What can you expect at a rijsttafel? Well, since it’s called rice table, a distinctive presentation of rice—steamed with coconut and turmeric then topped with Fresno chiles and shaped into a cone—starts the gluttonous affair. But after the rice, just about anything goes, and no two rijsttafels are the same because of the combinations and variations of dishes available.
Opening executive chef James Trees was appointed to master the rice table’s recipes passed down from the Hoppers’ grandmother, Renee, who learned how to prepare rijsttafel in postwar Jakarta more than 65 years ago. In fact, the rijsttafel you’ll devour is what the Hopper family was raised eating. It’s not necessarily authentic, but it’s personal.
Along with the rice cone, shrimp crackers, sambals, peanut sauce, some half-dozen pickles, from exceptional shiitake mushrooms to perky Persian cucumbers, were brought out for the apps round. Lightly sweet, curried hard-boiled eggs accented with coconut milk and macadamia nuts tickled the tongue. Prawn satay and pork and chicken lumpia were crowd-pleasing, familiar bites. In addition, cucumber herb and green papaya-mango salads joined in for round one.
The next course brought forth whole fried Dorade, curled as if in mid-swim with skin crunchy as kettle-cooked chips. Several cones of banana leaves concealing chopped prawns, coconut braised beef, and rice with mushrooms, chiles, and turmeric, gently steamed on a piece of galangal with lime leaf, felt like presents from Southeast Asia. One of my favorite Szechuan foods, mapo tofu, was nicely balanced with ground pork and spice subdued enough to highlight other flavors.
The meat course was a parade of classics like chicken rendang, braised lamb stew, and crispy pork belly layered with sambal and Indonesian soy sauce. An Asian omelette fried with caramelized onion and dressed with Indo soy concluded the mains.
Getting to dessert is a feat in itself. What’s another bite when you’ve already had 20 dishes? So enjoy the pineapple coconut cake. It’s a sponge cake light enough to find space between everything else you’ve consumed.
Rijsttafel might as well mean leftovers because you’re guaranteed to have some.
Hutchinson Cocktails & Grill, 826 N. La Cienega Blvd., West Hollywood, 310-360-0884. The next rijsttafel is March 9. $65 per person with a minimum of four people per table.