By Sara Hayden
To eat at Warung Siska in Redwood City, reservations aren't required. In fact, they're not even accepted, and no plans are needed. Seasoned restaurateurs Siska Silitonga, Ervan Lim and Anne Le Ziblatt want to offer high caliber Indonesian food and a laidback ambience so you can pop in at any time.
Warung Siska's partners aim to offer high caliber Indonesian cuisine in a laidback environment in Redwood City. Photo by Nathan Liang Photography
The three have teamed up to develop the new eatery in the former location of Le Ziblatt's Nam Vietnamese Brasserie, bringing Indonesian cuisine and culture front and center, and capturing the spirit of the traditional roadside eateries they experienced in Jakarta that serve as community hubs. "We have [warung on every street, every corner. You meet your neighbors there, you meet your friends there. That's what we hope to achieve here," chef Silitonga says.
Their warung reimagines the experience to serve 21st century diners in the Bay Area, featuring bright murals overlooking long wooden communal tables before an open kitchen. From there, Silitonga enjoys the exchanges she sees between families and friends — some familiar with Indonesian cuisine, and many who are experiencing it for the first time. "I can hear the conversations, all in different languages. That is, for me, absolute joy," Silitonga says.
With 20 years in the industry and restaurants that also include Palo Alto's Tamarine and San Francisco's Bong Su (not to mention Vung Tao Restaurants, the iconic establishments founded by her parents), Le Ziblatt says that the key is to be approachable to Bay Area diners. And while the atmosphere is casual, she says, "One thing that's not casual is the food."
Rather than importing ingredients, Silitonga features what's available locally in her Indonesian dishes. From San Carlos to Napa, she searches throughout the region for the best vendors of the fresh produce that is integral to the sauces she's shared through pop-ups and her ChiliCali brand. Le Ziblatt and Lim take a similar approach with the beverage menu. It's difficult to find cassava wine here, but they did find something remarkably similar in flavor, which happened to be a sake from Sequoia Genshu.
Warung Siska presents a cross-cultural exchange for the team, who aim to expose Indonesian guests to new beverages through their tap program for beer and wine, and non-Indonesian guests to the cuisine and culture in general.
"You'll see people come in with their friends, and they're so proud to have a place to share their cuisine," Le Ziblatt says.
Peninsula Foodist Sara Hayden caught up with Warung Siska's team after their July opening to discuss raising awareness about Indonesian cuisine and culture in the Bay Area, the masterful making of mother sauces and more.
A chance meeting and shared vision to raise awareness about Indonesian cuisine led Siska Silitonga, Anne Le Ziblatt and Ervan Lim to open Warung Siska in Redwood City together. Silitonga and Lim were born in Jakarta, the nation's capital; as a child, Le Ziblatt spent a year there as a refugee after her family left Vietnam following the Vietnam War. Le Ziblatt says Silitonga's and Lim's story reminded her of her own, and what she faced advancing Vietnamese fine dining in the Bay Area. Photo by Nathan Liang Photography.
Peninsula Foodist: As we get started, I'd love to learn more about yourselves and the history of the restaurant.
Ervan Lim: I'm Indonesian, so it's been quite a dream of mine to push this cuisine forward for the Bay Area. I think it's quite odd that we don't have Indonesian food represented here. We want to pioneer that.
Foodist: What do you think has historically been the reason for less representation in the Bay Area?
Lim: I think many people have traveled from Indonesia to Bali. That is the vacation island that many people associate Indonesia with. But the food is just from Bali. There are plenty of delicious foods and cuisines from around Indonesia, but those areas are not really open for tourism.
When people are traveling, they usually bring some flavors back with them. I don't think that's really the case for Indonesian cuisine just yet, and the pathway for Indonesian restaurants hasn't really been created.
There were a few Indonesian restaurants that were in the Bay Area. Borobudur (in San Francisco) was one of them, Jayakarta in Berkeley, but they both have closed now.
Anne Le Ziblatt: It was a chance meeting with Ervan and Siska and getting a better understanding of their struggle bringing Indonesian cuisine to the forefront that reminded me of what I was trying to do when I opened my first restaurant, which was trying to bring Vietnamese fine dining to the Bay Area, because it was by and large known as a casual street food type of cuisine.
To me it was quite stunning that Indonesia, being the fourth largest country in the world by population, wasn't at all represented here, and I thought that it needed to be. So my desire to refresh my (Nam Vietnamese Brasserie) concept ended up evolving to a full concept change with Ervan and Siska, and here we are.
I think chef Siska does a wonderful job of refining the cuisine and making it approachable, whether you're Indonesian or not. It's been really remarkable to experience diners in our restaurant who have never had Indonesian cuisine telling me that they didn't know what to expect when they came to the restaurant and were pleasantly surprised to find it to be so delicious and approachable, and they're excited to learn more about the cuisine. That's been really wonderful to experience.
In Indonesia, warungs are casual go-to spots for friends and family. Warung Siska in Redwood City brings people together at community tables. Photo by Nathan Liang Photography.
Foodist: You mentioned that there was a chance encounter that brought your partnership together. What clicked in the conversation for you that this was a path to pursue?
Lim: When we had to close M.Y. China, I was thinking of what's next, and started writing down ideas for Indonesian restaurants.
The chance of meeting Anne was the first initial thought with the space, size and setup — it just immediately clicked to me that we needed to push this cuisine forward.
With the pandemic, most people aren't able to go out and have an experience. People won't be able to go to Indonesia, or even travel. I thought it was a good time to be a little more adventurous with our concept and finally do this Indonesian cuisine.
Foodist: On your website you have a list of (Bahasa) Indonesian phrases…What inspired you to include that and some of those other elements?
Le Ziblatt: I think part of introducing Indonesian cuisine to the Bay Area, we wanted to share a bit of the culture as well. I think adding those phrases really helps to make the experience more in-depth.
We were incredibly fortunate to have support from the Indonesian community. In our opening week, we were speaking to diners who were riding in from the Central Valley just to dine with us. Considering that we're a restaurant that is casual — we don't take reservations — these were people who were driving in from hours away. They were willing to wait in line as long as it took to be able to enjoy the cuisine of their native country.
Having those words on the website was a way to expand the dining experience for our non-Indonesian diners as well.
"The sauce for our pork jowl dish alone has 18 ingredients," principal partner Anne Le Ziblatt says. Warung Siska's Babi Bali features pork jowl, Balinese spices, sautéed spinach, jasmine rice, tomato relish and peanuts. Photo by Nathan Liang Photography.
Foodist: Both of you have such extensive experience, and (Anne), your family has been doing this since the '80s. How have you seen the dining landscape change, and appetites in general?
Le Ziblatt: When I opened Tamarine in 2002, many of my diners had never been to Vietnam. We were offering not only the cuisine, but also had an art gallery where we were importing, working with a curator in Vietnam.
Over the years, we were surprised to find that many of our diners were surprised to see the beautiful artwork, and that they wouldn't be able to imagine had come from Vietnam.
In the last 10 years, Vietnam was really like this exotic new travel destination, whereas before it wasn't really on anyone's radar.
I think the Bay Area's evolving, and we're fortunate to have such a well traveled and highly educated demographic in the Bay Area.
What I've seen is an interest in very specific cuisines, and less fusion, which I think is something that has made the Bay Area very interested in Indonesian cuisine.
Warung Siska's soda gembira — happy soda with condensed milk, strawberry syrup and whipped cream. Photo by Nathan Liang Photography.
Siska Silitonga: Warung Siska is not the first Indonesian restaurant in the Bay Area, but for the longest time Indonesian restaurants were very specific to the Indonesian community. The awareness wasn't there about Indonesia.
The way around it, cooks would name themselves as "Southeast Asian cuisine" or "Asian restaurant." They didn't dare to say, "This is an Indonesian restaurant," because they were trying to attract a bigger audience. So when Anne, Ervan and I came together, we were so proud, and said, "Let's say it's an Indonesian restaurant. It's the time."
It's maybe not your grandma's Indonesian food. It's my Indonesian food, using whatever I can find around here. We're really just adapting, and trying to make our own food, our own version.
Le Ziblatt: Food also has an evolution. Saying that food is going to stay for hundreds of years and never grow and change, I think that's not realistic.
What Siska has done a really wonderful job of doing is adapting the cuisine so that she can utilize wonderful ingredients that we have here locally, but she is very particular about making sure the characteristics of the cuisine are still true to their roots. I think that really makes a difference in bringing more people to the Indonesian table, so to speak, and learning more about the cuisine. That approachability factor is really important.
Chef and partner Siska Silitonga of Warung Siska sources local ingredients from around the Bay Area for her take on traditional Indonesian dishes, like the gohu crudo. Typically the dish calls for tuna. She's been adapting with salmon. Photo by Nathan Liang Photography.
Silitonga: Indonesian food, you can't just say there's one way. There's so many types of cuisines from different regions.
When we were considering the menu, we were considering 1) Ingredients — what would be easier to get here without sacrificing the flavors and also the Indonesianness.
And then 2) What would be approachable for both Indonesians and also non-Indonesians?
And 3) How do we introduce Indonesian food beyond what's been introduced in the U.S., beyond fried rice or gado gado, our salad.
That's fine — delicious food. But can we push the agenda further?
So that's why the (menu's) gohu crudo for me is very special. A lot of people are surprised. They thought Indonesian food, everything is fried, or whatever the conception is. But it's actually raw fish, and we do eat raw fish because our fish in Indonesia is so amazing. We have ocean when you open your door, we live right next to the ocean.
Traditionally in Indonesia we would use tuna for this dish. It's a raw tuna sliced, and then you would add coconut oil, a little bit of calamansi, and also a little bit of fish sauce, and then fried onions or fried shallots, toasted coconut and crushed peanuts. And on top of it you put a little Thai basil or lemon basil. So the acid and the coconut oil combine together, and the fattiness of tuna. Delicious.
Here in the Bay Area, tuna is not easy to get. Plus it's not really local. What is in season right now is king salmon, so I tried this dish with salmon. And salmon has that similarity of fattiness, and also very sweet.
I tried it with the basic sauce: coconut oil we can find here, calamansi I substitute with lemon, which is subtle and sweet. And lemon you can find anywhere — probably your neighbor's garden. It's just delicious, so that's what we put on the menu.
This is one example of many of how we create our menu.
"I have lots of fond memories of ordering chicken sate with my family — no plans needed," Ervan Lim says of an eatery in his Jakarta hometown. "It's not a specific time, but it's a specific place in my heart with my family standing in that warung." Warungs tend to specialize in a particular item. Taking inspiration from that, Lim and his partners Anne Le Ziblatt and Siska Silitonga areoffering a focused menu to showcase Indonesian cuisine at their Redwood City Restaurant Warung Siska. Photo by Nathan Liang Photography.
Foodist: What are the characteristics of Indonesian cuisine?
Silitonga: Indonesian cuisine is what we call "bumbu," which is the mother sauces. Mostly it's based on chile, turmeric, galangal, lemongrass, ginger, shallots, garlic. So we have that spicy, sour, (and) a little bitter from clove or coriander. You have all that umami.
Normally we'd use Thai chile, but it's sometimes very difficult for farmers, especially during drought and fire. But the farmer says, "I have cayenne peppers." He has Fresno peppers. Also very spicy. I've already placed an order for a hundred pounds each.
It's not mythical ingredients. It's basically ingredients you can find every day. I'm very particular about using local ingredients so I can say, "You like this? You can make it at home."
Of course, there will be people that will say, "I don't know how to make this at home, so I'll come to your restaurant." And I'll say, "Yes, of course!"
Le Ziblatt: Yes, and you don't want to make this at home. The sauce for our pork jowl dish alone has 18 ingredients.
Le Ziblatt: We're very lucky to have such a talented chef partner who has a mastery of how these sauces work.
Warung Siska is currently open for indoor dining with proof of vaccination, as well as delivery and takeout.
Warung Siska // 917 Main Street, Redwood City; 650.393.5515
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