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A Gateway to North Sumatra

The New York Times — Half the diners at Sky Cafe sip jasmine tea from juice boxes. A sign says “Dilarang Merokok,” with a cigarette crossed out. Stacked in back are plastic bins of snowball cookies melded from cashews, Edam and icing sugar; jackfruit cooked down into gummi-bear-like cakes; and deep-fried crackers threaded with silver — anchovies, it turns out, buried in the batter whole, with questioning little eyes.


Five years ago, Lily Tjia, the chef and owner of Sky Cafe, was cooking quietly for her neighbors in the growing Indonesian community of South Philadelphia, running a semi-secret catering company out of her home. Open a restaurant, her customers urged, and in 2010 she did, on West Ritner Street, naming it after her American-born granddaughter, Skylar.

Soon visitors from New York started demanding a restaurant of their own. So last year, Ms. Tjia entrusted the original cafe to Skylar’s parents (her daughter, Betty Yu, and son-in-law, Anto Lys) and moved to Elmhurst, Queens, where she opened an outpost in July, specializing in the cooking of her hometown, Medan, North Sumatra.

It does not look like a franchise in the making, with bamboo decals on the window and a dining room that fits barely five tables between walls half-tiled in yellow and sopped in dimensionless light. Nor does it look that different from the space’s previous incarnations as restaurants devoted to the palm-sugar-heavy dishes of Indonesia’s south. But Ms. Tjia is in the kitchen and that is all that matters.

Her lontong sayur arrives in a bowl heaped with beef rendang, moon-white blocks of spongy rice cake, half a hard-boiled egg holding up a fever dose of sambal tauco (fermented soybean chile sauce) and garlic crackers pocked like coral and tasting like crunchy air. The soup underneath is red-gold and creamy from coconut milk, with a consoling heat.

That beef rendang has been braised in coconut milk to a blissed-out state, as if the meat can’t wait to disperse itself. Elsewhere on the menu, it’s the anchor in a kind of mini-rijsttafel, or “rice table,” the Dutch colonial banquet, flanked by curried labu Siam (chayote), a hard-boiled egg slashed with sambal and a crisping of slivered potatoes, peanuts and more tiny gleaming anchovies. (Cucumber and garlic crackers on the side seem incidental.)

Ms. Tjia’s son, Edy Yu, runs the floor. When my table ordered emie, egg noodles in a gravylike sauce of dried shrimp and shrimp stock, he insisted, “You won’t like it.” (I later discovered, in a review of the Sky Cafe in Philadelphia, that this is a line he has used before.) After such a buildup, the dish proved disappointingly free of funk or otherworldliness. Or is that what Mr. Yu was warning us about?sky1

sky7At the other extreme, there were petai, or stink beans, looking innocently like favas, paired with a shrimp-paste-based sambal that did nothing to disguise their bitterness and whiff of brimstone.

At meal’s end, you can raid the shelves at the back, stocked with treats like kue nastar, cookies loaded with pineapple jam, and lapis legit, a cake of exceedingly thin layers, each poured and baked before the next, made, as per tradition, with Wijsman Dutch butter. But if you yearn for summer in this bleak season, you want es sekoteng Medan, a rubble of ice, barley, basil seeds and nubs of longan and litchi. The secret ingredient is orange peel, boiled and fermented until it turns deep red and has almost no flavor, just a scent, as of some half-remembered flower.

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