- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 1, 2002

Give Ivy's Place a big pat on the back. The owner was a pioneer in introducing Washingtonians to Indonesian fare about 20 years ago long before the present bounty of Southeast Asian restaurants appeared on the local scene.
True to its origins, this cozy box of a place, just steps from the Uptown Theater on Connecticut Avenue NW, continues to produce home-cooked meals that reflect the food of the founders' native countries.
It's a double offering, as one owner is Thai and the other Indonesian. Dishes are plainly marked according to origin, which makes it an ideal spot for someone who has not tried either cuisine or for diners wishing to do some comparative tasting .
Ivy Benjamin, the owners' daughter and the restaurant's namesake, was born in Washington, and three days later, Ivy's Place was born in its present location. A branch in Bethesda was rented out recently and is now the Brasserie Monte Carlo.
"Indonesian food has a sweeter taste than Thai, but it is still spicy," says Miss Benjamin, who is often on the premises as assistant chef.
This family-run business is becoming even more multicultural, as she is engaged to a Hindu. Her parents are Buddhist and Muslim.
A small business without much of an advertising budget, it depends largely on loyal neighborhood patrons and moviegoers. The tables were full at dinner one recent midweek night, with one in the rear occupied by relatives showing off their young child. Miss Benjamin's great-aunt was in the kitchen. "Everyone is a cousin," she said laughing.
A lone but accommodating waiter was in charge and managed to handle eight tables at once.
Outdoor tables are small but have the advantage of being raised slightly above street level.
The interior of the restaurant has soft-gold walls and plain black formica tables holding small bottles of fresh pink carnations. The only other special touches are a number of folk artifacts, including a large fan and a few of the famed Indonesian puppets. Dining utensils are wrapped in a paper napkin; water glasses are plastic.
Traditionally, Indonesian food uses a great amount of chicken and vegetables, reflecting the largely Muslim population's aversion to meat. A mix of spices is usually present, along with ginger, garlic and nuts. The favorite dish by far in our group was the sweet and spicy beef rendang the only complaint being that there wasn't enough of it in the small vessel. The steamed fish dish, pepesikan, had an aesthetic advantage, being steamed and served in a banana leaf and simmered with a blend of lemongrass, turmeric, ginger and mint.
The fish is typically catfish fillet, chosen, Miss Benjamin said, because "it soaks up the flavors best." But it proved less interesting than it looked, possibly because the fillet seemed overcooked. Grilled shrimp were expertly done, but, again, we could have used more.
A rice pudding dessert was also disappointing, a milky substance with little texture. Canned lichees were the only other choice.
Apart from what the menu calls "Ivy's specialties," which are Indonesian, a rijstafel is available, but it is necessary to order it ahead with the price generally about $25 a person, for a minimum four persons. This is the Indonesian "rice table" adopted famously by the country's former Dutch overlords; it consists of a six-course feast not to be taken lightly.
With so many Southeast Asian restaurants opening in the Washington area, Miss Benjamin's family is considering limiting its menu to just the rijstafel to establish a new identity.
Other listings are entrees, vegetarian, nasi rames (translated as "rice with 3 items"), "noodles for everyone" and a children's menu (12 and younger), with most dishes served in either mild, medium or spicy versions. (Only nasi rames is not offered in a mild form.) This is a menu that aims to please all ages and culinary experiences. A bowl of shrimp-flavored crisp puffs favored by Indonesians of all ages can be ordered as a side dish.
Beverages are plentiful and a bargain. Nine beers are listed, as well as five juices. Wines are few but come at $3.95 a glass or $16.50 a bottle. The latter includes a respectable pino grigio.
A quick and simplified glossary is useful to know ahead of time but not necessary. Gado gado is a vegetable salad (served here with tofu and eggs, topped with Indonesian peanut sauce); sate is marinated meat or fish grilled on skewers; beef rendang is chunks of beef in spicy coconut sauce; and shrimp belado is grilled shrimp with a spicy tomato sauce. White steamed rice is the traditional accompaniment.
RESTAURANT: Ivy's Place, 3520 Connecticut Ave. NW., a half-block north of the Cleveland Park Metro station; 202/363-7802
HOURS: Dinner 4:30 to 10:30 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday to Thursday, and until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; no lunch served during the summer
COST: Appetizers $1.75 to $8.75; soups and salads $4.55 to $7.55; entrees $7.55 to $14.95; noodles $7.95 to $9.95; desserts, $2.75; children's menu $4.55 to $5.55; juices $2; beer $2.50 to $3.75; carafe of wine $14.25
CREDIT CARDS: Most major credit cards.
PARKING: On street
ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible


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