In Alvin Saputra and Akbar Thais’s hometown of Surakarta (also known as Solo), the kind of cooking you find in their Newtown restaurant would be highly unconventional. The brothers’ rendang comes mixed with cheese in a quesadilla, local mussels are stewed in beer and, perhaps most controversially of all, the charcoal-grilled chicken is “burnt”.
“My mum said to me, ‘How come your meat is so black?’ I tell her, ‘It's nice, don't worry it's just the charcoal. We like it like that here in Australia’,” says Saputra.
What’s conventional here in Oz or in Indonesia doesn’t matter to the pair, or to their chef Olly Lucas (Excelsior Jones, Reuben Hills). Their aim is to take what they like from Australian culture and from their memories of home, and merge them to make something new and, certainly in the case of the chicken, better. “I want to do something different. I want to create something unique,” says Saputra.
Hearing that, you could easily assume this is a fusion restaurant – the kind where every dish is created by combining two-or-more cuisines. Solo isn’t like that, in fact, many dinner options, such as the soto ayam (chicken and turmeric noodle soup), the satay skewers or nasi liwet (shredded chicken, coconut rice and coconut cream), are traditional.
“I've been calling my mum and saying, ‘What's the recipe, what are your nice dishes?’. I want to let her in the kitchen here,” says Saputra. “The reason we did this restaurant is mum always wanted to open a restaurant in Australia but couldn’t.”
While the dinner options lean towards Indonesian traditions, the brunch menu feels more inner-city cafe. There are pandan pancakes, Indonesian-Dutch hash-brown stacks, Brickfields bread and Welcome Dose roasted coffee. With toasties (including the house special: a rendang and cheese option), fried noodles, sambos and gado gado, lunch is somewhere in between.
Luckily for Saputra and Thais, they’ve found a rare space that easily straddles both morning and evening moods. The key is a simply decorated courtyard space and upstairs balcony area, which in the day is flooded with sunlight and at night lets diners eat under the stars.
“Opening in Newtown is a risk [because people aren't familiar with Indonesian food], but I wanted to give it a go. There are so many Thai restaurants here, I want Indonesian to be the same,” says Saputra.