As Japanese restaurants in Jakarta go, Hiroya has tried to eschew the limelight since it was established in 2011.
In picking a location for his restaurant, Japanese businessman Hirotaro Akiyama shunned the typical malls, office buildings and other high-profile locales, opting instead for the quiet, unassuming environs of a neighborhood in East Jakarta’s leafy Rawamangun residential area.
One of its specialties, the Chicken Nanban, typifies Hirotaro’s unassuming approach. Served in a bento box alongside tempura, miso soup and other Japanese staples, the dollop of mayonnaise capping these boneless cuts of thighs the only feature that makes them distinctive from their nearest variation, the more renowned Chicken Karaage.
“Salty and sour flavors are what defines Chicken Nanban. The dish is a specialty of the city of Kagoshima in southern Kyushu, Hirotaro’s hometown,” says Sartono, Hiroya’s Indonesian head chef and manager. “The chicken got this element after it was marinated in Nanban sauce, a curry and vinegar mix.”
The curry and vinegar mix seep into the chicken, giving it a full-bodied flavor that strikes at the first bite. The marinating gives it a taste unlike Chinese drunk chicken, and a tender texture that balances its savory, sour and salty tastes well.
Like the chicken, the rest of Hiroya is marked by its distinctive, no-nonsense yet striking appeal. Its clientele, both regulars and those coming in for the first time, find themselves drawn by its unpretentious surroundings, which resemble the small eateries or Japanese inns that inspired Akiyama. As in life, finding peace and tranquility took time and effort.
Sartono, a veteran in the Japanese restaurant business who started out at the Shogun restaurant in Bandung in 1995, says Akiyama’s first chose the Cibubur area, a satellite city on Jakarta’s southeastern fringes, as the site for his restaurant. But few customers showed up.
After six months spent looking for a new location, he settled on Rawamangun. Sartono says it was a risky move because the market for Japanese cuisine in that area was untested. But once the first wave of customers came, the word about Hiroya spread like wildfire.
“Since then, we’ve managed to pull in an average of 30 to 60 diners on a daily basis,” Sartono says. “The quiet locale, as well as reasonable prices for quality food ranging from Rp 5,000 to Rp 70,000 [42 cents to $5.90] — that’s what keeps people coming back.”
Sartono adds that a bit of variety goes a long way. They introduced new dishes on the menu every three to four months. A few promotional campaigns also encouraged their food-savvy clientele to try new things. Staples like beef, chicken and salmon teriyaki, as well as sushi and sashimi are among the favorites, but diners also go for foods that appeal to the Indonesian palate, like curry rice.
Served with a choice of beef or chicken in both its standard or katsu versions, the curry gravy is marked by its sense of balance. While the curry’s taste goes well with the meat, it owes its feel to the potatoes and carrots. The former imparts its thick, rich texture, while the carrot gives the dish a crunchy feel.
Hiroya’s sushi rolls are also belie their appearance. For starters, the volcano roll has a multi-layered taste, just like its ingredients. The salmon keeps the dish well grounded, while the tobiko roe adds the crunch and imparts a subtle taste. The mayonnaise does its part well by keeping all the ingredients together.
A look at the tropical roll, a melange of salmon, eel and avocado topping, shows that it lived up to its eclectic, colorful billing. The different toppings corresponding to each piece give way to various flavors. Whether it be the sweet salmon, smoky eel, or understated avocado, each ingredient offers a surprise with their contrasting, delicate tastes. The crunchy fillings in each piece also provide a pleasant surprise, as they add an extra zing of taste.
For its part, the crunchy salmon back and cheese provides for some unexpected surprises, in line with its standing as fusion sushi. Made of salmon back and cream cheese, the dish is similar to salmon and cream cheese on a bagel. Though the sushi rice and seaweed is entirely different from the more dense bagel, it still doesn’t miss a beat. The cheese still imparts a full, rich flavor that complements the salmon.
The surprises doesn’t end there. The prikitiew roll of tamago egg omelette and crab sticks also works, The dense texture of the omelette goes well with the delicate, sweet crab sticks, which are all held together by Japanese mayonnaise and contrasting flavors.
While all the dishes go down well with some hot green tea, the Yu Yu Cha also proves a winner. Made of a mix of fresh orange juice and honey, the concoction tastes refreshing. It also reflects Hiroya’s way of making opposites attract.
Sartono says Hiroya has opened a second branch at the University of Indonesia campus in Depok, another southern suburb not exactly known for its plethora of eateries. But regardless of where you choose to sample Hiroya’s treats, they’ll certainly be worth the try.
Jalan Anggrek No. 33, Rawamangun, Jakarta 13220 Open daily Tel. 021 4786 8486 Fax 021 4786 8485 hiroyajapaneserestaurant.com Facebook: Hiroya Japanese Restaurant Twitter: @HIROYAresto
Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on June 8, 2014