Stylish Venice hideaway delivers on ambitious Indonesian-inspired cuisine and cocktails
By Richard Foss (email@example.com)
When I heard there was an Indonesian restaurant called Wallflower in Venice, my reaction was puzzlement. Wallflower has two meanings: It’s a shrub native to Southern Europe, or a shy person who is uncomfortable at parties. Neither seemed appropriate for a restaurant featuring one of the boldest, most distinctive cuisines of Asia.
The restaurant’s exterior is certainly not extroverted; the only signage is the name in small black letters on dark green wood — invisible after dark. Despite this, people are certainly finding the place, and when a friend and I showed up without reservations we were lucky to get the last table. That was on the patio, which lacks the original art inside but is quite pleasant.
The most famous style of Indonesian dining is rijstaffel, a feast of many small dishes, but that’s not the way most Indonesians dine or what’s done here. Instead there is a short but interesting menu with “street snacks,” fried rice and noodle dishes, and a few large items that can be entrees or shared plates. And rice, of course, because every Indonesian meal includes at least one kind made with coconut milk, herbs and spices.
Our meal started off a bit rocky because it took a long time to get the attention of our server, who was covering the six patio tables plus some inside. The restaurant was apparently shorthanded that day, and he apologized several times for the delay. After we ordered there was another delay, as many orders hit the kitchen and bar at the same time, and the manager comped one of our appetizers in recompense.
The wait was worth it because the first item to arrive, a duck eggroll of the type called lumpia, was terrific. The two fat rolls were stuffed with spiced duck meat chopped with vegetables, and somehow the interior was moist and rich while the layers of pastry remained crisp. The rolls came with sorrel leaves, a native of Northern Europe with a flavor comparable to lemongrass, giving us the option to add an extra cool, citrusy crunch to each bite. It was an inspired idea.
The flavors of the stuffed calamari were less in focus. Unlike everything else we had, the spicing was oddly muted, with polite hints of tamarind, ginger and garlic. The ideas were sound, but they had been just
a bit too cautious in implementing them.
We asked our server’s advice about main courses and ended up with “rib wings” and a rice noodle dish called kwee tiauw goreng.
The fried noodle dish was made traditionally, with flat noodles, bok choy, bean sprouts and a crisp-edged fried egg. It had a gentle heat thanks to a dash of peppery sambal chili paste in the mix, and we thoroughly enjoyed it. A warning to vegetarians: Some dishes look meatless but include ground or dried shrimp unless you request otherwise. If you are serious about not eating fish or shrimp, tell your server.
The “rib wings” were grilled beef ribs glazed with chili sauce and sprinkled with sesame seeds. They had the tang of Buffalo wings with a Southeast Asian twist, and we liked it, although in retrospect wished we had tried one of the more unusual items like curried oxtail stew. The ribs would be a safe choice for someone only mildly adventurous, and we should have let our server push us more to the wild side.
Though we had a noodle dish, we also ordered two small bowls of rice — one made with ginger, lemongrass and kaffir lime, the other with chicken broth, coconut milk and spices. Having tried these we decided that on our next visit we’ll order small plates from the street snack section and get both rices, because it would be a great way to taste more flavors.
We’ll also try more cocktails, because there are spectacular ideas here. We now know that a hint of star anise works wonders in a Manhattan, and a Penicillin cocktail is even better with a dash of jasmine. We liked an egg flip made with mescal, bourbon and lemongrass, but the star of the evening was an original called the Huo. This combines bourbon, two cherry liqueurs and a hint of Szechuan peppercorn, and the spicy, smoky cherry flavor is like nothing else. Wallflower offers well-chosen wines and beers, but if you like cocktails this is a destination.
Three fusion desserts are offered, and though tempted by the lemongrass coconut panna cotta, we decided to have it next time. And there will be a next time, because we were already planning it as we left. The prices are above what we’d pay at a funky authentic place in the 626, but that’s not what this is or is trying to be. Wallflower is bringing Indonesian inspiration and a modern vibe to a hideaway place near the beach, and that’s a brave business plan. They deserve to succeed, and I believe they will.
Wallflower is open from 5:30 to 10 p.m. daily and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. for weekend brunch.
Wallflower 609 Rose Ave., Venice (424) 744-8136 wallflowervenice.com