Sunday, April 15, 2018

That Hipster Local Place

My friend was spot-on when she described Rangoon Tea House as a hipster joint serving fancy local food at an elevated price. That said, almost everyone I know who have visited Yangon – included those I trusted for travel and eating advice - recommended highly of the restaurant and so I went there to check it out, not once but twice, during my short stay in the city.

Sometimes I did feel guilty for cheering about my meals here – like those tourists coming to Hong Kong eating dimsum at high-end Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant and thought that’s real yum-cha experience – but I must say I enjoyed both the food and ambiance (enough I went back a second time the next day after my first). There’s a certain Soho vibe of the place, located on the ground floor of a colonial-style building right on the busy Pansodan Street, the major business district lined with office buildings, hotels and retail shops. Modern black and white décor was dominant in the open dining area on the ground floor with a hideaway bar upstairs, with high ceiling, trendy background music, and the open bar in the front and the cake/dessert stand on the side. Typical of any modern bistro in any big metropolitan city these days. The clientele matched the contemporary style, with mostly expats, tourists and some well-to-do locals.

The menu followed the same modern style with mostly Burmese dishes with a twist towards the fancy side plus some peculiar choices that appeared to be there just because it’s trendy (like the steamed baos which have been on the menu since forever but got no Burmese roots whatsoever). The same a la carte menu was served from day to night so you can pick whatever you feel like all day long, plus a good wine list and cocktail menu (also available at the bar upstairs), and of course, given this is a tea house to begin with, the tea menu featuring 16 different types depending on the richness and sweetness level (by varying the portion of condensed milk, evaporated milk and tea) – in a very hipster fashion. On the menu it also mentioned most ingredients were sourced locally from small organic farm, etc etc… things people love to hear these days anyway.

First time I was here after my earlier lunch at a noodle place elsewhere, and I ordered a couple of dishes. Laphet Thoke, or Pickled tea leaf salad was considered one of the typical Burmese dishes. It’s marked as vegetarian but curiously with dried shrimp listed as one of the ingredients. The dish was beautifully plated with ingredients layered and assembled using a ring, with the mushy pickled tea leaves on top, followed by tomatoes, toasted nuts, broad beans, garlic, sesame, and shredded cabbage. I ordered the spicy version and there’s a clear kick to it. The dish has excellent flavor, dominated by the deep, distinct, mustard green-like taste of the naturally-fermented tea leaves that were eaten by local Burmese for centuries, and with a refreshing acidity, aroma and crunchy textures to show forth. Authentic or not the dish was enjoyable.

Of course they have Mohinga – how would they not – but here they served an entire different version than ones I had on the street and charged more than 10 times for a bowl. First they served it in a deconstructed way – the thick broth and egg in a bowl, then separately the fritter condiments (pea, gourd, onions and mini fish cakes), followed by the rice noodles, chilies and herbs on a place, which you need to assemble yourself – presumably to prevent them from being over-soaked with the soup. Instead of just local river fish in the usual broth, here they used crabs, and served with a deep-fried soft shell crab on the side as well. It has a clean flavor with slight hint of lemongrass and fish sauce and that additional richness coming from using the broth base made with 100% crab meat instead of assorted fish. There’s a good variety of fritters served on the side – I do like the slightly different tastes and textures in every one of them, and they were perfectly crispy but not oily at all. The rice noodles were served like they were cooked al dente – to me I felt it’s undercooked but I guess they have adjusted to be more widely accepted.

Of course one must do tea, given their many choices they offer they probably know a thing or two about serving it. I actually don’t mind the milk tea to be richer AND sweeter than usual so that’s what I picked and for the iced version. Well it’s good – just the way I expected. On my first visit I wanted to try some desserts too, looking at many of their interesting choices, but there’s no way I could finish it. Hence my second visit as my last meal before I need to leave for the airport for the second part of my journey. The no-bake chai cheesecake was great, with good chai tea flavor infused into the firm cream cheese custard, with a firm caramel crust and served with a dollop of sour cream ice-cream, crushed peanuts and chocolate sauce. It was decadent.  No more tea for me for the second visit, but just a simple good old whole coconut.

I wouldn’t call this local food, but I did enjoy the food and drink here. Price might be steep in Myanmar standard, but let’s face it – one can't sit on the street under scotching heat and eat food prepared from a road-side food cart all the time, at least I am free to admit that I can't, and for those time I wanted western-style comfort and ambiance, Rangoon Tea House was the perfect refuge with decent dishes with local flavor too.

When? February 27 and 28 2018
Where? Rangoon Tea House, Ground Floor, 77-79 Pansodan Street, Yangon
Menu Highlights? Tea Leave Salad
Web: (Facebook)

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