Staying True to the Roots

Unlike many of its colleagues who went fusion, Emilie sticks to its French roots. And of course it’s not an easy path, nor a popular one.

“Realistically speaking, fine dining business is very difficult. Take a look around; do we have any new fine dining restaurants? If it’s easy and successful, you’ll see many new ones coming up,” said Wahjudi Rahardja, Chef Owner of Emilie French Restaurant. His words clearly answered our question of why there’s so few restaurants belongs in this genre. On the other hand, we have some fine dining restaurants went casual or fusion. What actually happened in this fine dining scene?

Since established in 2005, the family owned restaurant has won many awards; such as The Award of Excellence (2007) by Wine Spectator Magazine (USA), upgraded to “Best of Award of Excellence” since 2013, listed as one of Asia’s Finest Restaurants by the Miele Guide 2009/2010, 2011/2012, and numerous “Best French/Fine Dining Restaurant” from various magazines. 

Located in the famous Jalan Senopati, it’s quite easy to miss Emilie’s presence, apart from the signage and small light box. “I prefer it this way, not too flashy because our target market, more or less, is not mass customers,” said Wahjudi who is also known as, simply, Yen. Even though it looks just like regular houses in Senopati, the building was actually designed by Jaya Ibrahim and Associates, specifically for restaurant purpose.

The Idealism

Of course, we all know customer is king, but if restaurant owners always follow what the customer wants, the result is obvious: everyone’s doing the same thing, such as Nasi Goreng and Spaghetti Aglio Olio. That’s why we highly respect Yen’s approach, which is quite similar to Steve Jobs’, who is known for not too concerned on listening to customers, especially when it comes to food concept. 

“I’m not too customer-driven because, more or less, I cook for myself. I guess you can say I’m quite selfish, but I understand there should be balance; I should understand the market, bit adjustments here and there. Like, Indonesians love beef in fine dining restaurants. You have to serve more beef menus. Forget about your expensive chicken from France, or fish from Europe, they’re not as popular,” explained Yen.

Some of French fine dining restaurants have changed their concepts into fusion. However, Emilie’s shows no interest in following the trend. “The reason I built this restaurant’s because I want to serve this French food, as authentic as possible. I didn’t build Emilie to serve expensive food. I mean, if I can get the good local products with good price, I’ll sell it with reasonable price. Again, expensive or cheap depends on what you eat. Many people said that we have to adjust to the local’s taste, I don’t think I agree 100%. Why don’t we just build an Indonesian restaurant anyway?” said Yen. 

As we all know, standing to the idealism is never an easy task, Yen gave us the example through Emilie’s favorite menu: Pork Iberico. The Spanish pig is quite exceptional because it only eats acorn, which results in higher quality of meat and fat. In fact, it is the healthy fat, monounsaturated one. The color of the meat is redder than any other pork, also, it is safe to serve it below well done. “I always tell my waiters to inform the customer that we serve it medium. However, there was a customer who insisted that pork should be served well done. I mean, you can Google it, is it safe to eat medium Pork Iberico? Easy isnt’t it? Sometimes it’s difficult, we try to serve something special but sometimes our intention is misunderstood,” he explained.

Another challenge would be the labeling that Indonesian put on fine dining restaurants, such as: expensive, slow service, only for special occasions, like proposals or romantic dinner, anything but everyday restaurants. Yen also gave us some a tip to enjoy affordable meal in fine dining restaurants. 

“People think it takes long time to enjoy fine dining, which is not true. My food is fast; it’s just the guests who want to spend long time. Actually, in fine dining scene abroad, lunchtime is busy hours because they gave you affordable set menu. If you can’t afford the more expensive ala carte dinner, probably lunch is for you. We also have affordable 2 courses and 3 courses menu for lunch. I guess you’d probably pay the same amount if you are to have lunch in other fancy casual restaurants, but I can guarantee you, my quality is so much better,” explained Yen.

Highlight Menus
If you come to a French restaurant, try to eat like a French, and that means you shouldn’t rush only to the main course. Apart from the French classics such as Onion Soup, Beef Steak and Duck Confit, perhaps you’d want to try Le Carpaccio (carpaccio of fresh Hokkaido scallops with fried spring onion & morels) as appetizer. 

For the main course, the classic Le Poulet a la Crème (roasted chicken with champignon & cream) is a safe bet. However, we are totally captivated by Emilie’s L’ Agneau, the herb crusted lamb saddle & chop with provencale vegetables & tomato farcies. Basically, you got two cuts of lamb in this dish, the leaner saddle is more like lamb’s version of tenderloin, while the classic lamb chop would appeal to sirloin lovers. We believe this is one of the best herb crusted lambs you can have in Indonesia. And for dessert, you can’t absolutely go wrong with Le Chocolat, warm Valrhona chocolate fondant with mocha parfait & vanilla ice cream.

As with any other fine dining restaurants, the seasonal menu is probably the most exciting part of the place. “March to May is all about spring, the menus would involve imported asparagus, peas, it’s more to the lighter side. For summer, we’ll expose the tomato and olive oil. And for the winter, the taste will be somewhat richer with dishes like stew and venison. The ingredients might not be available throughout the year. Mostly it depends on what’s available from the suppliers,” said Yen.

Whether classic or seasonal, Yen understands we don’t grow up with European food. The ingredients, taste, and even the name, is not familiar with most of us. The most important thing would be to have an open mind, dare to explore new food. “When I go to a restaurant, I want to order anything I can’t cook, or something I’ve never tried. I believe all of the food in our menu is good. I wouldn’t put anything just for the sake of putting it on the menu, or just to fill the list. That’s why I’m glad if people order anything in the menu.”

Chicken or egg
Just ask any chefs or owners; the most difficult thing about about running a fine dining restaurant would be about the ingredients supply, especially the imported ones. It’s the reason why many of French restaurants went fusion. “It’s a very niche market. From 2005, the numbers of customers who really understand and appreciate the cuisine haven’t grown that much, they’re just wandering from one place to another. Let say if I were to dine in Amuz, I will see many of my regulars,” said Yen. The fact is, it’s hard for fine dining scene to grow if it’s not supported with the exotic, imported ingredients.

Indonesia has some local good ingredients, however they are not well distributed. “We’re living in archipelago, of course we have good fish. The problem is that the suppliers prefer them to be exported. If I want to buy, the price skyrocketed. That’s why the price of our local lobster is about the same as the imported live lobster from Canada,” said Yen.

However, the difficulties are also coming both ways, including from the supplier. Emilie has worked with some farmer in Bali for vegetable supplies. In fact, the farmer who is also an expatriate chef, has successfully planted some exotic ingredients like fennel. “It’s a crucial ingredient in French cuisine, especially in seafood. The shape is similar to onion, but when you bite it, it tastes like cough syrup. They sell it for Rp 100.000 for a piece of fennel in supermarket. I wonder who wants to pay that much? But because of the low demand, they don’t produce it anymore.” Yen explained. Again, it’s the classic chicken or egg theory.

True French fine dining restaurants is rare nowadays. In spite of all the supply difficulties, the fine dining labels from the people, Emilie is staying true to its French roots and managed to provide excellent French cuisine. “I know it’s a difficult path, very difficult. I guess I’m crazy enough to walk this path (laugh). In this street (Senopati), I’ve seen many restaurants come and go. Competition is always there, even though they’re not our direct competitor, they also serve food. Now you have more restaurants options than ever.