On a quiet, leafy-tree street corner set amongst stately white mansions and European luxury cars parked roadside is a structural gem designed by the Dutch architect and artist Pieter Adriaan Jacobus Moojen. Constructed in 1913, the Tugu Kunstkring Paleis is an excellent example of Dutch Rationalist architecture – also known as the New Indies Style here in Southeast Asia – which introduced innovative elements to classical architectural designs to better suit the tropical climates and conditions of old Batavia.
Kunstkring Paleis literally translates to ‘Art Circle Palace’ and the building and interiors are truly reflective of its name. Originally built as a venue to promote the fine and decorative arts, it served as an art and cultural centre and housed a world-class art gallery with a popular cafe that served fine food and wine to the denizens of Batavia. Important works of art by the likes of Chagall, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Picasso were exhibited.
After the Battle of Java in 1942, the Kunstkring was transformed into an administrative building that housed the Islamic Council of Indonesia, and later served as an immigration office for central Jakarta until the late 1990s.
In 2013, the Tugu Hotels and Restaurants Group restored and reintroduced the Kunstkring to its original splendour. The ground floor currently houses a restaurant, lounge, wine tasting room, cafe and gift shop. Upstairs, a vast and open gallery offers art exhibitions and the occasional auction.
Diners who step into the Tugu Kunstkring Paleis are immediately transported back to old Batavia, as various antiques and paintings adorn the walls and corners of each room. The sumptuous aroma of spicy incense seeps deep within as Frank Sinatra belts out ‘Corcovado’ in the background.
Dining here is a genuine cultural experience not to be missed.
Those interested in colonial era culinary endeavours may be inclined to order the Rijsttafel Betawi. Rijsttafel originated as a method for the Dutch to sample various components of a traditional Indonesian meal. It is not unheard of to see 20 or more dishes paraded into the dining room and each presented by lively waitstaff dressed in traditional attire. This presentation was a way for the Dutch colonists to display wealth and revel in the exoticism of their adopted land. The rijsttafel (or ‘rice table’) was most likely based on the local hidang way of eating that is found in most Padang restaurants, where dishes are brought to the diner as opposed to making a selection from a menu. It is a gorgeous display, with food of all textures, flavours and varying degrees of spiciness. Sambals, salads, meats, stir-fries and soups are served alongside a variety of steamed rice.
However, for those less interested in showmanship, there is also an à la carte menu from which to choose. There are as many traditional Indonesian dishes as there are Southeast Asian and Western, and a full wine and cocktails list for an even more intoxicating experience.
A fascinating appetizer is the Nonja Popiah, a kind of spring roll that is filled with a creamy combination of turnip, shrimp and chicken that is lightly dusted in panko flakes and then deep fried and served with melted cheese. It is rich and satisfying, a unique blend of flavours that is surprisingly familiar on both Western and Eastern palates. The Kunstkring Roast Chicken is an Asian play on duck l’orange and served with an aromatic brandy-infused orange sauce. Vegetables are as important component in an Indonesian meal, and the Sayoer Boentjis met Udang Api-Api en Telor Asin was refreshing with crisp, young green beans and fried shrimp with crispy salted egg yolk tossed together as a light stir-fry. The Steamed Barramundi Curry, a signature dish, is not to be missed. A fragrant and light coconut milk-based curry becomes indulgent when poured over a bed of steamed red rice. End the meal with some Kue Pancong, a traditional Betawi dessert consisting of a coconut cake and ice cream.
During the day, a small cafe serving bread and pastries and a fine selection of Tugu blended teas and coffee from their private plantation in the hills of East Java can be enjoyed from both inside and out, as there is a peaceful balcony located on the second level of the building, with sweeping views of the Menteng neighbourhood. The Ban Lam Wine Shop and tasting room houses an array of wine from around the world. Patrons can savour their selection here or purchase bottles to bring home after a hearty meal.
The importance of Tugu Kunstkring Paleis is deeply imbedded in its historical and ongoing relationship with art. As such, a walk through the gallery and exhibition hall is indeed one of the highlights of the visit. If possible, skip the elevator ride and alight the staircase to peruse the old photographs and artwork that adorn the walls and of which are an integral part of the building’s history. There are private rooms with luscious Indonesian paintings and objets d’art that provide insight into an era long past.
On the occasion of our visit, the Sidharta Auctioneer displayed an impressive collection of fine art, only hours away from their next sale. Prospective buyers were slowly studying their favourite pieces and browsing from some of Indonesia’s most revered modern artists. How fitting, indeed, that the Kunstkring has come full circle.
Tugu Kunstkring Paleis
Jalan Teuku Umar 1
Menteng, Jakarta Pusat
Tel: +62 (021) 390 0899