I thought I’d never find it. There I was, dragging four unsuspecting friends through a heat so thick it felt three-dimensional, just so we could sit down to eat. This, however, was destined to be not so much a meal as an experience. The destination was Betawi Café, a little Indonesian restaurant recommended to me by two of Dubai’s best chefs: Rhodes Mezzanine’s Paul Lupton and Reflets’ Olivier Biles. When chefs of that calibre tell you about a place, visiting it is not a suggestion; it’s an obligation. The problem was that neither of them could tell me the restaurant’s phone number and neither could describe exactly where it was.

It wasn’t until we stumbled, by chance, upon a group of Indonesian sailors (yes, really) that we found our way. I had heard a lot of folklore about the place: it was small; the proprietress didn’t speak any English; the menu was in Bahasa. As a result, I was armed with pages of culinary research, none of which was really necessary because the owner and her brother spoke perfect English and the menu – while not overly detailed – did make a stab at describing the dishes on offer.

We joined a table with the sailors, hoping that by following their lead we’d be privy to the best and most authentic meal imaginable. I veered away from foreigner favourites such as nasi goreng and ordered something called opar ayam, which caused our companions to break into enthusiastic cheers. I’m still not quite sure why; opar ayam is chicken braised – and served – in a coconut milk broth. Perhaps they were barks of food envy, for my dish was deliciously nuanced. In recent months, I’ve started to feel as though my tongue had fallen into a slumber, but each sip of this soup had so much spark that it jolted the increasingly tired muscle back to life.

This seemed true of most things on the menu. Food here had an electric quality, the first taste inspiring the same delight as the 10th or 20th bite. Early on in the meal we passed around a plate of nasi padang, a good choice for anyone who wants to try a range of specialities. Literally meaning ‘rice from Padang’, it’s a pick-a-mix dish. Here, it was served with a teasingly smoky chicken leg and a soft-boiled egg that had been seasoned and fried.

We also ordered stacks of chicken satay, which seemed to fit the group vibe excellently. A dozen or so of the pudgy chicken skewers came nestled under a thick, sweet blanket of chunky peanut sauce. It was a nice dish; sultry, tarlike and possessing a roughness that was charming because it hinted at being home-made. The only misstep in an otherwise excellent meal was with an order of mpek mpek, a lightly battered, fried fishcake that came in a sickly sweet broth. Overall, though, the meal felt successful, not only for the restaurant, but for us – we managed to find the fabled hidden gem, and it was definitely worth the trek.

The bill (for two)
1x Nasi padang Dhs28
1x Sate ayam Dhs17
1x Opar ayam Dhs25
1x Mpek mpek Dhs25
Total (excluding service) Dhs95