After President Trump’s inauguration it is going to get tougher to find an authentic “ethnic” meal – especially Mexican, obviously, but cuisine from Muslim nations might also be hard to come by. Perhaps that is the price to pay for national greatness. If you love burritos so much, why don’t you marry one? Then it can be a citizen, like Melania.
If we don’t love Indonesian food quite so much, that’s because we rarely try it. So the arrival of Tempo Dulu, a restaurant that specializes in Indonesian and southeast Asian cuisine at the Danforth Inn in Portland, is noteworthy. But you still won’t try it often, since Tempo Dulu is quite pricey. Is it authentic? You won’t really care, and that is a point for Trump’s world-view. That’s an American chef back there in the kitchen, with no background in Asia. He took a tour, learned some things, and now when it comes to southeast Asian flavors, he is winning. And isn’t winning again what matters?
Tempo Dulu is not just pricey, it is (cue Trump voice) luxurious. The service is exceedingly thoughtful, even pampering, from the scented hot towel opening to the final delivery of a hand-written bill. The space has some striking visual highlights: like dramatic chandeliers and sculptural cracked-egg wall art. But mostly the décor is an elegant beige on beige. In the cozy Danforth lounges, which date back to the age of imperialism, the experience is less upscale then it is colonial. Tempo Dulu means “olden days” and its Dutch owners seem nostalgic for the time when Holland ruled the East Indies. In fact, for $89 a head you can order the traditional Dutch-colonial rijsttafel meal.
But the whole menu lets you taste what it would be like to make Holland great again. The result is surprising, especially if you go to Tempo Dulu expecting the exotic and unfamiliar. What you get is a cuisine that matches the décor – mostly creamy and mild, with some genuinely striking accents. What was best about a lobster soup, for example, was its silken texture and simple, refined lobster flavor. A hint of green curry and kaffir whispered at you in each spoonful, without overwhelming the dish.
The chicken liver custard worked a similar way. It was served with vegetables pickled in a spicy Singaporean style, and some sharp peppercorn. You eat it with shrimp chips rather than bread. But what stays with you is the fantastic mild-creaminess of the custard – a familiar pleasure but unusually excellent in execution. A gorgeous mai tai also had a creamy-sherberty appeal, while the cà phê đá, made with mescal and tamarind bitters, resembled a milky iced coffee.
A few dishes gave sharper flavors a more central role, like a tangy sour fish soup served between courses, and a tempeh dish suffused with funky tamarind sourness. Beef rendang was made with a tender cut of cheek. And while it was infused with the tangy/spicy aroma of lemongrass, galangal and lime, the richness of the meat and the coconut sweetness made even this dish mild and accessible. A fantastic dessert seemed to capture all of Tempo Dulu’s appeal: a creamy panna cotta topped with a thin layer of super-tart passion fruit, and a bottom layer of black rice, adding texture and depth.
As President Trump accelerates our reorganization into a tiny economic super-elite and an army of the impoverished who exist to serve them, restaurants like Tempo Dulu can play a useful role. Trump may block visitors from Indonesia and other Muslim majority nations, but the well off, and those up for a splurge, can enjoy a version of their cuisine that suits our tastes. And eating in the style of Asia’s colonizers helps you understand why these rich guys just want more and more, instead of sharing with the rest of us. At luxury spots like the Danforth and Tempo Dulu, the good life is just so good.
Tempo Dulu at the Danforth Inn | 163 Danforth St., Portland | Three courses $69 (other tasting menus for $89 and $98) | 5:00pm to close, Tues-Sunday | 207.879.8755