Gajah Wong West
3937 Spring Grove Ave., Northside
513-591-3935 or 513-602-7949 (when closed)
Like opening an old, rusted box and finding an exotic assortment of precious jewels inside, Gajah Wong West is truly a hidden treasure.
Its simple exterior gives no indication that inside is a cozy trove of lush tapestries, statues, stone relief carved tablets and brightly painted wooden masks outfitting an authentic Indonesian restaurant.
Owner Craig Congdon's appreciation for Indonesia comes through in every inch of Gajah Wong, from the tiniest decoration to the outdoor patio.
"Usually when people visit a country they say they want to live there but never return," he says. "Well, I did, twice a year for five or six years and stayed at least a month each time."
After his first trip in 1998, Craig brought back art and furniture for his former import business, which now furnishes the restaurant, and also fellove and brought back his wife, Rue, who is now Gajah Wong's chef.
The restaurant is open only for dinner four nights a week with a modest menu that includes a few tasty appetizers, a soup and four sauce-based entrées.
Each entrée is served with a choice of tofu and fried tempeh, chicken or shrimp and comes with a cooked vegetable, sprouts, shrimp or garlic crisps and flavored rice.
"Our sauces are savory and flavorful but not spicy," says Craig, who opened the restaurant this past January. "They are not curry and not quite like Thai. We use a lot of roots, nuts, leaves, chiles and spices."
Each item is crafted by Rue using authentic Java ingredients such as home-grown peppers from seeds bought in Indonesia to flavor her family's recipes.
To help wash down the saucy entrees, Gajah Wong has an extensive beverage selection that includes martinis, cosmopolitans, aperitifs, cocktails, fruit juices and flavored coffees, hot chocolates and sodas.
"We make up for not having a beer and wine license with a lot of other drinks to choose from," Craig says.
He is planning to eventually expand the restaurant to include full dining service throughout the week, a larger dining area, a full juice bar and a place for musicians to perform in the winter.
"We don't get much business during the week, but we do get a lot of return customers who like to bring their friends," Craig says. "Everyone seems to come on Saturday, but we'd love to be open the entire week."
HOURS: Open 5:30 to 10 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday.
APPETIZER: Indo garden rolls - lettuce, sprouts, cucumber, noodles and carrots in a thin rice wrap topped with peanut sauce (tofu $4.50; shrimp $5)
ENTRéE: Jave kare - Java chilies, nuts, spices, herbs and coconut milk served either with tofu and tempeh ($13), grilled chicken ($14) or shrimp ($16.50)
DRINK: Pimm's cup - Pimm's No. 1 liqueur with crushed cucumber, lemon juice and Sprite ($6)
DESSERT: Kolang-Koling - vanilla bean ice cream and palm nut topped with tapioca, coconut gel, syrup and hazelnut liquor ($4.50)