The romance of colonial Dutch visual and culinary arts at Kunstkring Paleis

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Multatuli is the name of the author of the book ‘Max Havelaar’ or commonly known as Douwes Dekker, this room is specifically made for displaying paintings and some of his photos. (photo: IO/Aldo)

IO, Jakarta – It all started with a building constructed by the Colonial Dutch Government on the 17th of April 1914, christened the Nederlandsch-Indische Kunstkring (“The Dutch East Indies’ Art Circle”) as a centre to promote art in those days.  Now, that building is called the Kunstkring Paleis (“Palace of Art Circle”). The Kunstkring Paleis is located at Jalan Teuku Umar Nomor 1, Menteng, Central Jakarta, and it has been actively operating from April 2013.

The 100+ year-old building has changed functions several times. Even though it is even more than a century old, the Kunstkring Paleis maintains its exotic and elegant aura. Here, everything is more than merely “artistic”: it is historic, exclusive and charming.

From 1914 until early 1939, many events celebrated the highest appreciation of art at the Kunstkring, literally the “Art Circle” in English. Artworks of Pablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh were once exhibited in this 2-story building. This property, once belonging to the Provincial Government of the SCR of Jakarta, is now under the lease management of the Tugu Hotel and Restaurant Group.

The Group now manages the Kunstkring according to the spirit of its original inception – as a space dedicated to art. A mere 10 years ago, the building became known for its bar, one that was involved in a nasty religious controversy.  But now, approaching the Kunstkring’s grounds, visitors can again recognize and enjoy the high aesthetics of classical and royal luxury that is a mixture of European and Javanese culture in this elite dining spot. The façade of this elegant building has three portals.  The two 19th-century neo-classical towers bring back a sense of the Colonial Era.

Kunstkring Paleis is decorated specifically in motifs of Indonesian and foreign historical characters who inspired it as their namesakes.

The Prince Diponegoro Hall, the main hall of the restaurant, is the only place where the two royal clans of Surakarta, Central Java, the Mangkunegara and Pakubuwono, reside together in harmony. Upon stepping through the great intricately-carved gapura (archway) set with the initials MN on a golden shield (for “Mangkunegara”), one enters a lavish dining hall, where one’s vision is arrested by a majestic 9 x 4 m square painting, ”The Fall of Java”, by Anhar.  The great painting depicts the capture of Indonesian independence hero Prince Diponegoro, which was finally successfully brought about by a deception of the oppressive colonial government. Niches in the side walls are decorated with the initials “PB” for Pakubuwono and other Javanese/European art pieces.

Right next to the Prince Diponegoro Hall is the Suzie Wong Lounge & Bar, depicting the luxury and decadence of 1960’s Hong Kong, with Suzie Wong as the icon (in the form of two large posters of the movie “The World of Suzie Wong”, taken from the 1957 modern classic novel written by Richard Mason), and the sensuous red cylindrical Chinese lanterns hanging from the ceiling add to a sense of mystery and exoticism. On the other side of the Prince Diponegoro Hall is the opulent and dignified Multatuli Room, filled with the rescued heirloom pieces of Eduard Douwes Dekker a.k.a. “Multatuli”, the eminent Dutch writer and social activist of the Dutch Colonial Era.  This room is among the favourites of the Tugu Group.

As we move up to the second floor, we encounter another private lounge, the Soekarno Room. This room flawlessly showcases the charms of our Proclamator. The private life of Soekarno, who is well-known for his great love of art and beauty, is shown through a 24-seat dining table and chair set, antique paintings, and Keris from Soekarno’s own private collection decorating the room.

The art pieces in the Kunstkring Paleis are imbued with great value. They are not merely beautiful, but they were in the possession – or at least handled by – important personages of the respective eras. What you see here are rarities that you will likely not find anywhere else.

That is very well and good, but what about the menu served by this luxury restaurant? The Tugu Kunstkring Paleis serves Indonesian and Peranakan (classic Indonesian and Chinese fusion) dishes. As for culinary types, the menu contains dishes with unique names derived from Dutch, Mandarin Chinese, and Indonesian.

The Kunstkring Paleis is open from 10 a.m. until midnight.  However, if you decide to go the early-bird route and stop by in this venerable establishment for breakfast, you may enjoy the tiny café that opens just outside the main building. With a seating capacity of just 15 people, this quaint setting serves delicacies adopted from traditional Dutch recipes every day. In addition to baked goods, among its superior products is Javanese Robusta coffee, freshly brewed from quality beans harvested from the restaurant’s private plantation in East Java. No matter what time you decide to visit, the Kunstkring Paleis will charm you with its uniqueness, elegance, and great service.

(Muhammad Akbar)