Since Wink & Nod opened in the South End in 2014, its owners have essayed a novel idea: Host chefs for six or seven months, giving them a chance to attract investors to fund their own place, then cycle in a new team and repeat. These limited stints have provided great variety for local diners, but we usually try to give our readers reviews with a longer shelf life. However, the success of Wink alums like Jeremy Kean and Philip Kruta (Brassica), Josh Lewin (Juliet) and Brendan Pelley (Doretta) have made it easier to consider the current occupant: Kaki Lima, an Indonesian concept from chef Retno Pratiwi and her husband/managing partner Peter Gelling. Winning The Improper’s 2016 Boston’s Best award for Best Pop-Up (for an earlier residence at KO Pies in Eastie) didn’t hurt, either.
First, a word about the room, notably the bar, which has remained a constant through seven kitchen iterations. With its two-level Jazz Age decor, romantically dim lighting and 21-plus door policy, Wink & Nod feels like a glamorous, date-friendly nightclub. Evoking a speakeasy vibe, the bar’s specialty cocktails ($11-$14) feature on-trend components like aromatic gins, tropical cordials, vinegary shrubs, fresh herbs and raw eggs. That yields foamy, piquant refreshers like the Secret Garden ($14) of gin, rosemary, chamomile and egg white, and darkly bittersweet potions like the Safe to Say ($13) of rye, coffee liqueur and Yellow Chartreuse. The wine list is modestly respectable, with two sparklers ($9-$13/glass, $36-$52/bottle), seven whites ($9-$14, $36-$125) and six reds ($10-$15, $40-$150) with enough off-dry wines to suit Southeast Asian flavors, though the 14 beers ($4-$9) make for easier food matches. Drinking is a clear priority for the youngish weekend-night crowds here, and hard surfaces contribute to a punishing roar at prime time, challenging the affable staff to get orders right. This is more an upscale bar with serious food than a restaurant with a craft cocktail program.
But the food is indeed serious, with Jakarta native Pratiwi drawing on the home cooking and street foods of the vast and varied Indonesian archipelago. Her winning hand with cart fare is epitomized by sate lilit ($8), Balinese-style grilled skewers of minced chicken served with chili-dusted cucumber wedges and one of many sambals (condiments of fresh chilies, aromatics, sugar and acid), this one a coarse mix of chilies, lemongrass and garlic. Batagor ($11), golden-fried shrimp dumplings flanking a cube of pan-crisped tofu, are fabulous with the creamy pureed-peanut dip, another hot/sweet/slightly funky marvel, with just a hint of shrimp paste. Terong banda ($7) crisscrosses slices of charred eggplant atop a fascinatingly butterscotch-like sauce of macadamia and coconut. Selada pacri nanas ($7) is a fantastic, verdant plate of raw snap peas, baby kale, fresh mint and sunflower kernels with a judicious dose of spicy/sweet/tart pineapple vinaigrette. A medium plate (think big appetizer) of tempe orek ($13), oblong nuggets of chewy, crisp-fried soybean cake topped with long beans in sweet soy/chili glaze, offers another fine balance of sweet/hot/umami accents.
A few plates seem designed to calm boozehounds bewildered by Indonesian cookery, like sambal goreng kentang ($14), four huge wild shell-on prawns atop a big pile of crisp, sambal-spiced tater tots, and sayap ayam goreng, chicken wings ($12/half, $21/full) in a sticky, tangy-hot chili/tamarind glaze. Traditional? Hmm. A tasty, unchallenging base for drinking? Definitely. Gulai ($22), seared duck breast done to a rosy pink with charred Brussels sprouts, seems like a blow-in from a French bistro that accidentally stepped in lemongrass-coconut curry, but the gentle fusion works just fine.
The impressive large plates serve two or more diners with a big protein complemented by a tall cone of excellent jasmine rice, rice crackers, sambal and finely diced, quick-pickled vegetables. One hefty, deeply satisfying offering from this section is beef rendang ($33), grainy chuck long-braised to luscious, fatty tenderness. Its nuanced, rich flavors encompass sweet spices, aromatics, nuts, ginger, coconut cream and mild chili fire. Torgoues pepes ikan ($68), a two-pound marinated, sambal-coated, grilled and butterflied whole branzino, is crowned with a fluffy, funky salad of chiffonaded herbs, dried shrimp and coconut flakes. The luxurious lobster saos nanas ($62) centers on a faintly charred, roasted 1.75-pound Maine lobster with a sweet and hot pineapple/chili/peanut sauce ($62), though you’ll have to apply some beach-shack work with lobster crackers and picks to break it down. Desserts include es krim kelapa ($7), terrific toasted-coconut ice cream with sweet black sticky rice dusted with confetti sprinkles.
The Wink & Nod culinary incubator keeps churning: In the fall Kaki Lima will make way for another chef trying to grab the spotlight in a hopping, chic nightspot where half the patrons don’t care about the food. With any justice, Pratiwi’s bright young talent will find a more permanent stage of her own. In the meantime, you have a few months to try this vanishingly-rare-in-Boston glimpse of Indonesian fare, with all its glorious multiethnic diversity, complex spicing and bold tropical flavors. It’s one of the world’s great, sprawling, underrated cuisines, to which Kaki Lima provides a beautifully vibrant, happily traditional introduction. Don’t sleep on the chance.
– Sate lilit
– Selada pacri nanas
– Tempe orek
– Beef rendang
– Lobster saos nanas
– Torgoues pepes ikan
– Es krim kelapa
Kaki Lima at Wink & Nod 3 Appleton St., Boston (617-482-0117) winkandnod.com
Hours: Dinner, Mon.-Thu., 5-10 pm, Fri.-Sat., 5-11 pm, bar, Mon.-Sat. till 2 am
Parking: Limited metered and guest street spaces
Liquor: Full bar