The attempted Italian fusion in Ismaya Group’s latest venture, Gia, at Sampoerna Strategic Square, will underwhelm, as will its seemingly inattentive waiters. (Photo courtesy of Gia)

Jakarta's Latest Italian Offering Misses Key Points


MARCH 05, 2015

It's safe to say that Jakarta is mad about Italian food -- and for good reason. From starches that can carry different flavored sauces -- often managing to withstand an overzealous douse -- to vegetables celebrated through minimal cooking, it's a cuisine that -- in its instant comfort -- has become an easy fallback in a city in the throes of a love affair with its own, new international culinary persona.

Whether it's a quick pizza for lunch on the run or a proper romantic sit-down over the weekend, the cuisine is well represented and restaurateurs have successfully managed to lure the average wary diner in, with tempting offers of a cuisine that has been wrenched of some of its authenticity and recast with ingredients that are much more familiar and closer to home. Such is the need to meld disparate cuisines here that the merchants who traversed the Silk Route would be delighted -- although one might wonder about the one-sided nature of such fusion because here, addition of chilies is the key factor in domesticating this wild foreign beast.

Ismaya Group's latest outpost is tucked in the deep confines of Sampoerna Strategic Square. Approaching its vast entry way is almost representative of classic Moorish alleyways, mustard walls and dark wood -- a fitting preface. Dare I say, it almost feels like walking lost in the Italian countryside, kissed by the gentle Mediterranean sun and chancing upon a stoic yet reassuring place to lounge.

The restaurant itself features high ceilings, dark furniture and whimsical lighting that help bolster its charms as a spot for both a working lunch and a romantic meal. The bar area is airy and well lit with natural light from the oversized windows and provides a lounge space for those who don't fancy a tipple before sunset.

The complimentary bread goes beyond the standard slices of different rustic loaves. Here, one pulls apart soft halves of a black-and-white demi-loaf, which gets its color from the ingredients embedded -- garlic, parmesan, black olives and onion, the trappings of a good Italian meal. Clearly, simplicity at its best.

Family-style dining is the norm here with portions intended for two, across the menu. A dish of orzo -- barley lain serenely on grilled vegetables -- seems like a seemingly benign way to begin the meal. Tossed lightly in olive oil with a mild vinaigrette, the roast vegetables and grain ignite the palate. Truly an homage to one of the world's oldest grains by one of the world's oldest cuisines. Coupled with a refreshing white wine in the warm confines of the restaurant, it's an easy distraction from the Spanish music in the background.

But any images of the romantic idyll of the Italian piazza under the warmth of the Mediterranean sun are quickly dispelled with the arrival of the rest of the meal.

There's casarecce pasta with spinach and broccolini . Garlic, turned into a confit and placed, rather unprepossessingly on top of the dish, following a roasting, arrives at the table laden with olive oil. A spear of the dense pasta presents the requisite lusciousness, but its first bite absolutely kills the moment. The bite of the thick pasta works well but when coupled with the searing heat of the red chili, fades out as the palate is scorched to levels that overwhelm even the most seasoned of spicy food connoisseurs. And it doesn't get much better with other pasta dishes on offer.

Linguine aglio olio , the backbone of most Italian restaurants in Jakarta, is served up with tuna. But while the bottarga method is appreciated here, with the crushed tomatoes and parsley giving it a rustic, almost authentic look, a bite sends shockwaves across the palate with its piercing heat that is at once disappointing to the diner and a disservice to the cuisine.

Fusion may be de rigueur in Jakarta, but Gia's Tuscan head chef has miscalculated southeast Asia's penchant for spice.

Whether it's his patronising -- if cavalier -- attitude toward his diners or his apparent lack of knowledge of the archaic blend of East and West, it's apparent this disharmony extends itself to the waiters at the establishment whose acerbic attitude toward non-Western patrons is emblematic of the bracing sting of most of the main dishes here.

If you care to soldier on for more, there are some interesting finds among the proteins on offer, but these, too, aren't without shortcomings. There's a seafood stew with barramundi , mussels and olives. Each is cooked well and there is a delicate flavor that shines through its pinot grigio-infused broth, but don't expect to find any octopus as you ladle through, despite claims to the contrary on the menu.

The staff is just as misinformed and brush off any query with a vague reference to it being blended in but the texture of the thin broth is much too frail for anything of such heft to be mixed in. The dish isn't among Gia's worst, but the overuse of olive oil does leave an annoying cloying taste.

For the more turf-inclined, there's a generous steak portion. Ireland's version of the exquisite wagyu is tender and balances out the flavors of the veal jus, but, rather like most dishes here, the accompanying Gorgonzola polenta may have been suited to other cuts of meat. And there's the roasted head of garlic that is served alongside here, too, although a smear of the sweetened flavor does improve the taste.

Dessert, if tried in absolute resignation, may well surprise you, although it's really just the tiramisu and the gelato that save this course. Soft sponge topped with whipped cream, served alongside cold scoops of decadent, dense hazelnut gelato do make up significantly for an otherwise intensely underwhelming meal. Fortunately for the chef -- and certainly for the rest of us -- his adaptation of his grandmother's tiramisu recipe is a save. An order of coffee is advisable to help end the meal on a (barely) positive note.

If it's a drink you're after or a sweet treat to tide you over until dinner, Gia is a possibility. But for something more substantial, with ambience to boot, just continue walking that sun-kissed path in search of something better. As any fan of Italian restaurants in Jakarta can tell you, there's always another around the corner.

The Peak