Baltimore has its first Indonesian restaurant; but if you didn't know it, you'd never guess. First of all, it's called the China Palace. No clues there. And then it's been around awhile as a Chinese restaurant -- six years, to be exact.
Still, this isn't a case of a Chinese restaurant offering a couple of Indonesian dishes. The China Palace has a complete menu of Indonesian food, separate from the Chinese menu, and an Indonesian chef, Juw Liao Ti, to cook them. The last time you could get anything like it in Baltimore was 20 or so years ago when the Wynnewood Towers dining room offered a ristaffel.
You won't get a ristaffel at the China Palace, but just about everything else is on the menu, from shredded jellyfish salads to sweet peanut pies.
Don't be put off by the decor; it's not very prepossessing. At a time when restaurants go overboard to avoid Chinese-restaurant cliches in their interior design, the China Palace incorporates them all. Besides the red vinyl booths, the Buddha on top of the air conditioner and the paper mats explaining your Chinese horoscope, the Valentine decorations were still up the night we were there -- along with a little Christmas tinsel.
So it was with lowered expectations that we ordered our meal. We were ready, in other words, to settle for filling and cheap. But what we got was much more.
Indonesian food is closer to Thai than Chinese. Some of it is wonderfully appealing to American tastes, other dishes are almost inedible -- not because they aren't prepared properly but because they are. Take the hot and sour fish soup ($2.50). You can't help but expect something like Chinese hot and sour. What you get are chunks of baby fish, gutted but not skinned or boned, swimming in what tastes like hot pineapple juice with pineapple chunks. I don't know about you, but that's not my idea of a good time.
But then a shredded jellyfish salad ($6.50), which sounds like something most of us wouldn't attempt, pleased everyone. It consists of prettily arranged mounds of colorful shredded vegetables -- carrots, celery, cucumber -- with the almost crunchy strips of jellyfish (no, it's not slimy) and little curls of shrimp and cilantro on top. The vinegar-sugar dressing is like what you get on Thai or Japanese cucumber salads.
Our other starters included vegetable rolls ($2) and beef sate ($4.25). The former reminded me of a somewhat greasy Indian samosa. Still, it was tasty. The latter suffered in comparison to the delicious beef sates served at the Thai Restaurant across the street, but considered on its own wasn't bad. The beef was a bit thick, but it was tender and the spicy peanut butter sauce perked it up.
If you order nothing else, you must have the ayam rica rica ($7.50), one of the several chicken dishes on the menu. Thin strips of all white meat, meltingly tender, are stir-fried with baby corn, strips of green bell pepper and flecks of hot red pepper. The intriguing sauce is delicate, with a harmonious blend of freshly ground spices before the fire finally hits. You will love this dish.
It isn't as pretty to look at as the udang lemong, shrimp in lemon sauce ($8), with its brilliantly green broccoli and fat pink shrimp. I love the consistency of the thin sauces of these dishes; the ingredients glisten rather than drown in them. But I didn't like the intense sweetness of this one, with no hint of lemon or lemon grass that I could distinguish.
The most addictive sauce of all, although I couldn't tell you just why, bathed oseng oseng sayuran ($5.95), an otherwise simple mixture of crisp-tender snow peas, cabbage, broccoli and sliced carrots. You should also try one of the several rice noodle dishes. We had the angel-hair-thin rice noodles stir-fried with beef ($6.50) and what was supposedly a curry sauce -- good but not tasting like any curry sauce I've ever had. The beef, though, was just OK; we did better with both shrimp and chicken.
On to dessert. The menu offers choices ranging from tapioca ball in ice pineapple juice to sweet rice coconut cake, but all that was available that night was sweet peanut pie ($2.50). It was memorable only because it's the first dessert I've ever had served on shredded iceberg lettuce. If you took the pastry of the vegetable rolls and filled them with sweetened crunchy peanut butter, you might be able to duplicate it.
The service was excellent the night we were there, but I should point out that only three tables were occupied. The China Palace is one of those places I almost hate to review positively. I'm afraid a hundred people will converge on it at once, the kitchen will run out of food, the staff will be frantic and everyone will go away mad -- at the restaurant and the critic who recommended it.
China Palace, 3333 Greenmount Ave., (410) 889-0288. Open every day for lunch and dinner. AE, MC, V. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair access: no