The Cheeseburger Effect

We were relaxing on a raft in the middle of the ocean, just a few feet from Pulau Macan’s sun deck, the sun, the water, the warmth, Dan in repose, combining to become so gratifying that the word that came to mind was perfect. And then I turned to him and said, You know what would be great right now? A cheeseburger.

I’m not sure why I thought grease and grilled meat with a slab of melted cheese seemed like the icing on the holiday cake. Maybe it was the resort’s vegetable-rich food that triggered a protein craving or perhaps it was a foreshadowing of his “Showgirls” screening, where absolute freedom means chomping on a cheeseburger while watching Las Vegas’ lights, in defiance of your choreographer’s penchant for brown rice and steamed veggies.

It became my new wonder word, and a vow was made, blessed by Joel Olsteen, to get a cheeseburger once we got back to the city.

We made a beeline for Bluegrass, a restaurant that had popped up at my former South Jakarta neighborhood in the year I was gone. It’s in the backwoods of Epicentrum, which in that same period became this massive, UFO-like compendium of bars and restaurants and ridiculously opulent function rooms.

In almost Hong-Kong-esque fashion, the femme maitre d’ put us third on the waiting list even if it was clear you could still seat an entire football team in there with more to spare. Anyway, we ended up sitting at the bar, joined by my former roommate Anand. The menu is kind of Southern United States comfort food-slash-barbecue, but set in the dining room of a cowboy who had obviously struck it rich in oil exploration.

The cheeseburger was pretty good.

In the tradition of homesick expats — many of whom tend to dabble in the local cuisine for a bit until their tongues are numbed by MSG and refrying oil, at which point they retreat into a bubble called “Western comfort food” (mention Taco Bell to an American living in HK, for instance, and they will salivate) — we kind of did the same, except for that one time we cooked Indomie and sunny side-ups for breakfast.

I was excited to be brought to places I failed to explore while I lived in Jakarta, such as this little bistro called CANTEEN tucked into a bookstore (for that alone, I loved it) and happily had some cranberry juice to salve my ailing urethra. Coming from a city where the “best” and most ubiquitous pizzeria — out of 10,000-odd restaurants — peddles what New Yorkers have told me is a bastardization of their beloved pies, I was happy to eat this baby right here.

My long-aborted dreams of eating Belgian waffles in Jakarta (see: Brussels Spring) were sated there as well. So light and fluffy.

Maybe the one disappointment, a feeling that marks every exit I’ve ever had from that city for various reasons, was this new place called Poste. It is next to Trattoria (the Italian original of a purported delicious rip-off called Pepenero), which I remember best for the squid-ink pasta with salmon cream sauce and the commendable calmness with which its staff, despite the language barrier, would take orders from often irate newspaper workers.

There’s all kinds of mixed messages at Poste (in Tagalog this means “pole,” by the way) starting from the food to the decor to what exact part of the chicken they had bondaged in bacon, fried and then slapped on a plate of mashed potatoes in my chosen, and last, meal.

Based on the menus alone, it’s trying to essay a post office, but it looks more like a Mexican hacienda, with noisy guitar-players occupying a quarter of the room, blaring 1990s standards all night long. They will also try to poison your palate with confounding buy-one-take-one specialty drinks, including one cucumber atrocity, which tasted more like vinegar than a so-called Pearl of the Orient (?).

I guess you could call their cuisine “fusion.” We had as a starter some tori sushi, and then it all went downhill from there, except for latecomer Harry Jacques who said the roast chicken was decent. Anand said his shrimp sandwiches were good, but came as a miniature triplet. The rest of us I think endured the many iterations of sickly sweet tomato sauce — located in the center of my chicken and smothered all over Dan’s cannelloni and Andy Janes’ spaghetti with kegel-ball-sized meatballs.

Of course, by the end of the trip, things became less seamless, but we did find the energy to head to another Epicentrum joint called Otel Lobby (I forget if they had an H in there). Dan told me the place’s owner, similar to the crucifixion endured by the proprietor of JackRabbit, had come off as a douche for glossing over the real reason he was booted out of the reality show “Survivor.”

We sat at the bar, not realizing said owner, an American, was in the middle of a training session with the wait staff, quizzing them patiently on menu items and drink lists by pretending to be a new customer. I want something citrusy but not too sweet, what would you recommend? What’s a crispy duck bun? What’s your popular spicy drink? What else is in a Manhattan besides whiskey and vermouth? I want something floral. What’s your local beer? 

I think his even-handed, almost doting, demeanor with the staff that day merits an immunity necklace.



It did look like a hotel lobby, if you like yours a bit dark and gothic, like a coven of vampires would at any moment appear on one of the velvet stuffed couches. There were shots had, plus beer, commensurate with the amount of grease we ingested via the awesome french fries with homemade ketchup. And just like on the island, we indulged the cheeseburger obsession, only this time it came in spring roll form.

 

I guess I will look back on this heady moment and remember the deliciousness of the cheeseburger rolls less than the promises and declarations that bubbled out of me on that bar stool. My Jakarta trip might have had some rough edges, but once you get to the juicy, meaty center of the entire experience and what it means in the long run, I suppose the words that come to mind are rare, tender, and overall well-done.

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