Not since artisan toast has a food trend been so widely derided. Even the term “bone broth” sends people into fits of rage. “It's just stock!!” the agitated mobs tweet, while the rest of us wonder vaguely how you'd even go about serving such a thing — are there, like, whole businesses based on selling cups of meat water to people? — before going on about our days.
Trends are slippery beasts for chefs to grab onto and conquer and ride into the great sunset of success. While artisan toast has indeed made careers, and is now a staple on the menus of highly respected restaurants (I was recently served avocado toast at a $250-per-person tasting-menu joint; it was awesome), bone broth is still laughable, at once too simple and too pretentious. That's a bad combination.
All of this might help to explain why many of us have overlooked that Pasadena’s Bone Kettle is a major advancement of our city’s best food trend — the one that involves chefs with immigrant backgrounds and fine-dining training taking the two parts of their culinary identities and merging them into something new and delicious. At its inception in February, Pasadena's Bone Kettle was touted as “a bone-broth concept.” This description buried the lede significantly, and probably inspired those vague “how do you build a business around meat water?” thoughts I mentioned earlier. The far more interesting thing about Bone Kettle is its chef, Erwin Tjahyadi, and his use of Indonesian flavors on this menu.
Tjahyadi and his family left Indonesia in 1995, when he was a child. He eventually attended Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena, went to work at some high-end restaurants in San Diego and then landed at the Hotel Bel-Air. When that job ended — because of a union dispute, according to Tjahyadi — the chef decided to launch a food truck. Komodo became best known for its “phorrito,” a pho/burrito mashup, and the truck eventually became a fast-casual restaurant in the Pico-Robertson area. There are some hints of Tjahyadi's Indonesian heritage on Komodo's menu, but mostly it's pure fusion, with everything from kimchi to pineapple teriyaki sauce finding its way into the menu's tacos, burritos and rice bowls.
Bone Kettle is a somewhat more serious enterprise, in both its food and its sleek setting. Tjahyadi recently returned to Indonesia for the first time in more than 20 years, and the trip had a profound effect on him. The chef now understood the food of his heritage, beyond his family's home cooking.
Bone Kettle is not a purely Indonesian restaurant by any stretch of the imagination, nor does Tjahyadi claim it to be. It's inspired, he says, by his travels throughout Southeast Asia, and particularly by the many bone broths he tasted along the way. I can see the tweets now: “He just means soup!” Perhaps. But broth is a central part of this restaurant's identity, and “soup concept” doesn't have quite the same ring.
As far as concepts go, this is a slightly confusing one, even once you're sitting down to eat. The menu has a list of shareable small plates; a section detailing the broth, which comes with noodles for $10 per person; and a separate listing of meats you can order alongside the broth, and which costs extra. Each serving of meat is supposed to be shared between two or three people. Got it? No? Basically, you can have appetizers before your bowl of noodle soup, and you can also have meat alongside your noodle soup.
And the soup is great! Local company Sun Noodles provides the round, slightly bouncy, ramen-style noodles, and the broth, made from boiling beef and spices for 36 hours, is milky and rich and comforting. It's more like tonkotsu broth than pho, though it's made from beef instead of pork, and it's far less fatty and slightly more restrained. Each bowl comes with sliced fresh red chilies and a sprinkling of microgreens, and is perfectly satisfying all on its own.
The meats you're encouraged to order on the side would be almost superfluous if they weren't so good, particularly the beef rib, which is a fiscal commitment at $39 but nonetheless sells out most nights. It's tender and rich and deeply, deeply beefy. The fatty brisket, too, is a wonder of falling-apart braised meat with crisp edges.
How do you build a business around meat water?
So the broth is good and the noodles are good and the meats are good. But what's far more interesting about Bone Kettle are the small plates, and the evolution they represent in terms of bringing Indonesian flavors into the New American canon. These dishes are the work of a modern American chef in the way they're composed, both visually and in terms of flavor. But many of them are also unmistakably Indonesian, so much so that they induced unexpected memories of meals I had in Indonesia more than 30 years ago, when I was a child. Gado gado, an intense peanut sauce that usually serves as a dressing over vegetable salad, is used by Tjahyadi as the binding for a small pile of chewy rice cakes. A hard-boiled egg often accompanies the traditional dish; here tiny quail eggs fulfill that role. Mie goreng pedas — literally fried spicy noodles — are chock-full of shrimp paste–fueled fermented fish funk. A sous vide egg comes nestled in the middle of the bowl, adding to the dish's slick richness.
There's a fair amount of straight-up fusion here: the ubiquitous hamachi crudo with ponzu; an oddly soft steak tartare that's supposed to be Vietnamese in some way, though its overpowering fruity sauce resembled no Vietnamese food I've known. Gnocchi with apricot, duck confit, crushed pecans and spiced coconut sauce works well despite its thoroughly mixed heritage.
For dessert, a somewhat gummy cassava cake sits alongside what I experienced as a truly unfortunate avocado ice cream, though I recognize its inspiration — avocado milkshakes are commonplace in Indonesia. (I hated those too, so maybe it's me; if you like creamy smooth sweet frozen guacamole, have at it.)
Bone Kettle is currently without a liquor license, though it plans to serve beer and wine eventually. In the meantime, lots of customers stop by the Everson Royce wine shop just up the street and bring in bottles to enjoy.
The staff are slightly overly formal in their mannerisms and slightly underprepared in the mechanics of the job, but they have hospitality to spare.
My guess is that Bone Kettle might have received way more attention if, rather than being spun as a bone-broth joint, the modern Indonesian small-plates aspect had been touted as its main selling point. Gussied-up beef stock and phorritos are all good and well, but Tjahyadi is worthy of our attention for reasons that go beyond any one trend.
BONE KETTLE | 67 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena | (626) 795-5702 | bonekettle.com | Tue.-Sun., 5-10:30 p.m. | Small plates, $8-$15; broth and noodles, $10 per person; shareable protein, $16-$39 | BYOB | Valet and street parking