Stumble Into Indonesia's Unseen Places
Submitted by viravira on 4 November 2013 • Destination
“Mumun, we HAVE TO check out that Kunstkring Paleis place in Menteng!” I said excitedly to Mumun in one of our meetings.
“Kuns..what? Where? Why?” My whole sentence barely made sense to her.
“Kunstkring Paleis! It’s this old colonial building I saw on my way to Gambir station, and I think it’s a new fancy restaurant. Not sure if we could afford it, but the exterior is awesome! We HAVE TO go there!” I could feel my eyeballs were bulging out.
“Okay, let’s!” It was either she was afraid of my enthusiasm, or she’s just that easy.
I didn’t want it to be just another visit. I wanted to know about the place as much as I could. I read articles about Kunstkring Paleis, as well as the official website. Long story short, we contacted the Tugu group’s management, and they agreed to give us a tour. Yaayy!
Ms. Sian (short for Rosiany), the PR of Tugu hotels and restaurants, welcomed us on a Monday afternoon. This slim lady with fair skin and curly short hair sat with us at the lobby, where classic sets of furniture were placed neatly. I felt like visiting a super rich person’s house 😀
She gave us a bit of an introduction about the fine-dining restaurant that just opened on April 17, 2013, exactly 99 years after the building was built. From behind her glasses, I saw a sincere admiration about the property – or should I say ‘a work of art’ – that she’s PR-ing for.
Kunstkring Paleis was originally built to promote the fine arts of the Indies (mostly South East Asia). It was called Bataviasche Kunstkring, which was Dutch for ‘the fine arts circle of Batavia’. (Batavia was the name for Jakarta city back in the Dutch colonial era.) Great names like Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin and my personal favorite Vincent Van Gogh have had their works displayed in the gallery of Bataviasche Kunstkring in the 1930s! This is the only time I’m wishing I were already born in that era! Oh wait, but then I might’ve been a low class commoner local who couldn’t even get in the building. Nevermind, then :-/
Anyway. The building changed function a few times. After becoming a hit in the art scene, it became the office for an Islamic organization in 1942, and then it became the Immigration office in 1950 – 1997, hence the name you can still see now stamped on the building: “IMMIGRASIE NST-DJAWA” something something. Then it was abandoned for several years before finally being bought back by the government of DKI Jakarta province. It was controversial when Kunstkring Paleis became Buddha Bar, which was far from its original purpose and apparently insulted some of the Buddhists here.
Finally Mr. Anhar Setjadibrata from Malang came to the rescue. He wanted to bring back the art purpose of Kunstkring Paleis, as applied in his other line of businesses under the Tugu group. Having experienced in hospitality and dining business, plus being an antique collector, he turned Kunstkring Paleis into a sophisticated fine-dining restaurant slash art gallery that you see now, while the building itself is still the property of DKI Jakarta government.
The restaurant function of Kunstkring Paleis consisted of several thematic dining rooms: The Pangeran Diponegoro Room, Suzie Wong Lounge, Colonial Rijstaffel Room and Multatuli Room on the ground floor, Soekarno 1950 room and Balcony Van Menteng on the 2nd floor. Oh, and the ‘Bluder Wak Seneng Nio & Bertha’ bread and coffee corner attached to the main building.
I can’t really pick a favorite, but The Pangeran Diponegoro Room is absolutely attention stealer. It’s the biggest dining room and has a huge painting (9×4 m) attached to the wall. The painting depicts the capture of Pangeran Diponegoro (a national hero from Central Java) by the Dutch, that took place in Magelang in 1830. Massive and impressive! Not only size-wise, this “The Fall of Java” painting amazed me because the painter is none other than Mr. Anhar himself! Wow, this man does business, collects antiques and paints!! *bowing down*
A scary silhouette of something that looks like a woman ghost on top right corner of the painting caught my attention from the moment I set foot in the dining room. Ignoring the possibility of seeming too trivial, I asked Ms. Sian about it. And I would’ve never guessed that it’s the silhouette of the feared and powerful Queen of South Sea (famed with the name of “Nyi Blorong” or “Nyi Roro Kidul”). Nothing trivial about the lady, in terms of Javanese (or Indonesian) myths and beliefs.
“But why is she in the painting?” I asked.
“Well, the capture of Diponegoro is done out of betrayal by the Dutch. And Mr. Anhar saw the similarity between that story and the background story of Nyi Roro Kidul, who was betrayed by her love and so forth,” Ms. Sian explained.
Hm, a revelation of another interesting story within an interesting story! I should do further reading on the queen’s story.
For someone who used to watch kung fu series, this lounge, which has a heavy oriental touch, looks all too familiar to me. The highlight is the painted movie posters on both ends of the room, which are original posters from an old movie theater that, I think, doesn’t exist anymore. Talk about preserving antiques! I mean, I don’t see a movie theater with painted poster anymore. I wonder where the other old posters have gone..! It would be awesome to decorate my living room with a painted poster of, say, King Kong??! Whoaa..! I bet my home would be burglar-proof!
The Multatuli room is located behind the Diponegoro painting. It is said to be fully-booked almost every night and is where a lot of business deals have been done. The walls are decorated with photos of Douwes Dekker aka Multatuli himself, and pictures of some forced labor events at that time.
Next to the Multatuli room is the Colonial Rijstaffel room. Rijstaffell was originally a way of presenting food by the Dutch specifically for honored guests, with each dish using different kinds of spices extracted from Indonesia’s natural resources. But now Kunstkring modified it to 12 different Betawi (native Jakarta) dishes, served all at once on a table, most of which I haven’t even heard of. I hope I can try this someday 😀
Unfortunately I didn’t have time to take photos in either of these rooms, but trust me, they are as meticulously beautiful like other rooms in Kunstkring.
Next! We went up to the Soekarno 1950 room. I wasn’t paying attention when Ms. Sian explained to Mumun why it’s 1950. Pardon me, I was busy admiring and taking pictures of the jaguar and lion on the table, they’re so cute!
I gotta say, a brief background story of Mr. Anhar reminded me of the image I have of Soekarno, Indonesia’s first president. He’s known as an artsy man himself with a big spot for romance in his heart.
The Soekarno 1950 consisted of a main dining room with a long table and a smaller room with a couple of round tables. Full of details, as always, and dramatic paintings are hanged on the wall.
Now to the art space. Well, I personally consider the whole Kunstkring Paleis as an art space, but this one is specifically a gallery. With a bar in the middle of it.
Artists take turns displaying their works in this gallery, which is open for public. Anyone can go up there and enjoy the art works. However, its location on 2nd floor could be a bit puzzling for public who aren’t yet familiar with Kunstkring Paleis.
An afternoon tea would be nicely served at the Balcony Van Menteng area, right outside of the gallery. Jakarta’s air is often too hot, even for a tropical girl like me, and it’s much polluted. But it would be a nice change to sit out on the balcony sometimes, given that a spacious lawn distances the building from the hustle bustle of Central Jakarta streets. But I think it would even be a lot nicer if you sit there at night, when the lights are on, in contrast with the dark sky and tree silhouettes. Romantic!
As for the bakery and coffee shop, their top recommended bread is sent from Blitar, East Java, every other day – if I’m not mistaken. I am not really a bread person, but this one, me likey! It’s fluffy, soft, and tastes rich, a bit more like a cake. Find out the history behind the long name, here: Bluder Wak Seneng Nio & Bertha. It was cozy enough for Mumun and me to gossip, read magazines and work with laptops, since they also provide free wifi connection. Well, you know how it is with freelance writers ;D
Aaaaaand just when I thought I could end this piece before it gets too long, I just remembered: there’s also an antique/art shop with its own entrance on the right side of the building. Half of it sells the regular antiques or artsy stuff, half of it is dedicated to display and sell crafty works of young artists.
Mumun and I really enjoyed our time at Tugu Kunstkring Paleis. The whole design of the palatial restaurant could get a bit intimidating for us commoners. But the prices of the menu have quite a wide range, from IDR 48,000 to IDR 300,000 per dish. So there should be something you could try. For me personally, enjoying a place to eat can be equally worth the cost of the food itself. Especially if the place itself is designed and treated with heart 🙂
Tugu Kunstkring Paleis Address: Jalan Teuku Umar No. 1 Menteng, Jakarta Pusat Phone: +62 21 390 0 899 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Bookings can also be done through their official website at tuguhotels.com
* Click here to read about my experience at Tugu Hotel in Malang, East Java, the oldest property one of Tugu group.