Friday, August 18, 2017

Returning to The Strand

A famous guest comes back to Rangoon for the reopening of its most iconic hotel’s restaurant.

NOT much has changed since I left Rangoon in July 1927. The town is as cosmopolitan as ever. Westerners still look as clumsy and graceless as they did a century ago. The climate hasn’t changed either – despite all the talk. Worse still, modern electromechanical cooling machines have added to the ordeal of the heat the prospect of catching a cold. The Strand is still there, too, facing the river.

Good old Strand. Most of the competition has disappeared, but it is still standing.

Just like the last time I visited it* before boarding on the liner back home, the hotel had just undergone a facelift. Back then, the business cat who had bought the hotel from the Sarkies brothers had done a cracking job at modernising the establishment. The new management did just as fine this time. The Strand never changes, it adapts. Tempora mutantur...

A gentleman in town told me that the hotel’s cookery had evolved too. Good. Auguste Escoffier was an old fart – and his omelettes were overrated.

The new chef is a much more amicable chap. His name is Christian Martena. Yes, an Italian. (The days where the French chefs ruled the world are over – in fact, the French do not seem to be able to rule anything at all nowadays, not even themselves).

It was he who welcomed me a fortnight ago when I went to The Strand Restaurant for supper. Upon arrival on that gay and balmy evening, I asked the affable man what was on the menu. He laughed and retorted: “Sorpresa!” His answer stirred my curiosity – and appetite.

After slurping two glasses of prosecco at the bar, I joined the dining room. The Strand has kept the atmosphere it had in the 20’s: elegant but relaxed. There is nothing more odious than those fancy restaurants where stiff and haughty personnel make you feel as if you’re spoiling the air. You leave these places with an ulcer and a hole in your wallet.

The menu in front me did not reveal much. What was I to make of a starter called “Femme fatale” or a dessert named “Stardust Galaxy”? In my days one came to Rangoon to enjoy well-cooked meat, but that was it. Good heavens! these Burmese Days are over, and I was treated to a Mayfair-class dinner right here, in downtown.

Chef Martena started off with a playful board of amuse gueule. A spoon of caviar reminded me that the Armenian Sarkies brothers, the first owners of The Strand, imported lumps of black gold directly from the Caspian sea. Another item called the “dragon’s breath”, had been molecularly tweaked (I will not reveal the effect here – for hell of an effect there was – but I suspect Martena learned this act of wizardry from a Kaya sorcerer up in the hills).

From where I was seated I could see him peeping at his guests from the kitchen, anxiously tracing their every moves and expressions on their faces.

The “femme fatale” wasn’t Doris Geddes, the beautiful pianist who enchanted many of The Strand’s customers in its golden days. No, it came in a slash of carmine-red beetroots from Shan state and a couple of unctuous and surprising scoops of goat cheese sorbet.

Starters were prolonged with a tender octopus on a bed of potato mousse and a broth of mussels. A mysterious popping black olive punctuated the dish. The mollusk had not been fished off the coast of Galicia, but in Rakhine by Muslim boatmen – I wonder, by the way, if the term 'Rohingya' still chagrins the locals.

The first main, a raviolo stuffed with a veal reduction, came to the table wafting a nutty smell of girolles and truffles. “Autumn is coming” Martena had twice rightly called it, rightly. I gobbled it up in a minute. The combination of sweetbread and truffle shaving is the best thing since sliced bread (Note to self: Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print).

The lamb which the chef served for the fifth course tasted like a tender English hogge: rosy and finely seasoned with a rosemary and red wine sauce grand veneur. Visually, it looked like one of those dripping paintings from that Jackson Pollock bloke all of my American friends were banging on about. If Pollock’s work is questionable, “Pastures New” wasn’t.

“Pasture New”, Chef Martena’s Pollock moment. Nyan Zay Htet/The Myanmar Times“Pasture New”, Chef Martena’s Pollock moment. Nyan Zay Htet/The Myanmar Times

The “Stardust Galaxy” was not of a recreational nature, much to my regret, but a dessert. The Far East has become the world’s drug factory, but it is no longer possible to visit a decent opium den in Rangoon today.

I ended my dinner satiated and joyful. The rich six-course meal cost me a modest US$88, without wine. Had I been less greedy, I could have opted for the US$58 four-course, or à la carte. To hell with petty accounting! I will put my expenses on a chitty anyway.

I took on the digestion strolling down what used to be Dalhousie street, now Maha Bandoola – the fact that the name of the dreadful Governor of British India was replaced by that of the Burmese general who fought the Brits so bravely filled me with joy. The Burmese have reclaimed what was theirs to begin with.

Only one thing has changed in today’s Rangoon. In the teashops, the Burmese do not chat and jovially engage as they once used to. Instead, they lean over tiny portable screens on which they type where they have been and with whom, at almost every minute. Their emotions are strictly monitored all day. They feel compelled to express what they feel and comment on what others think.

I should write about that sort of dystopian surveillance technology. It would make for a fine book. I thought I’d call it “Big Brother”, or perhaps the “Face Book”.

*The historian of the Strand, Andreas Augustin, only assumes that Orwell came to the hotel. Most of the information this story was built on can be found in The Incredible Tale of the Legendary Strand - The Most Famous Hotel of Yangon, available on site.

Address: The Strand Yangon,

92 Strand Road ,Yangon.

From Tuesday to Saturday, 18:30-22:30

Bookings: +95 1243 377 or