Monday, September 25, 2017

Review: Rau Ram evokes a romanticised past

Yangon is sexy again.

Photos: RJ Vogt / The Myanmar TimesPhotos: RJ Vogt / The Myanmar Times

That’s the vibe of Rau Ram, the latest in fine dining from Pun + Projects and the affable man of all trades Ivan Pun.

Tucked in the quiet Ye Kyaw Street just north of the downtown grid, the self-described “Southeast Asian bistro” is small, intimate and undeniably chic. Everything is custom, from the palm-print wallpaper (designed by Pun and local interior guru Mya Myitzu) to the old-fashioned, incandescent lighting framed in little cages. The staff are unique in their ability to be ever-present yet not – as is the norm in Myanmar – hovering nervously.

When was Yangon ever sexy, you ask? Let me be clear: Rau Ram hearkens back to a colonial-era sense of (British) class, and it’s easy to imagine Orwell or Neruda holing up with a notebook on one of the back tables to escape a monsoon downpour. As far as modern-day Yangon experiences go, a meal here is a bit self-indulgent, but that’s the point – sometimes you need to treat yourself like it’s still the Jazz Age.

Even the menus are smugly old-fashioned. The folded squares, styled after the hand-painted silk wallpaper, are printed in an old American typewriter font that calls to mind screenplays and classic black-and-white film. The only thing missing is the curling cigarette smoke and men in fedoras.

It’s the kind of place you might bring a date: red hues, moody lighting, sensational Latin American rhythms adding to the notion of “fusion” in a singularly auditory fashion. But romancers beware, as the dining area is small. Best to make a reservation, and to be comfortable running into someone you know. Rau Ram can seat around 30 patrons, many of whom appear to be on dates themselves.

On a date or alone, everyone should try the “Pho Real” cocktail (K6000), a play on words that also plays on the tongue. The gin-based drink hits the mouth with a spicy assault of anise, nutmeg and cilantro, an exotic combination that people either love or hate. I myself wasn’t particularly enamoured, but the feeling of adventure it evokes is rare in the land of Myanmar beer and Grand Royal whiskey. It was also strong – for real (sorry, I had to). Thanks, generous bartender.

Rau Ram demands a sense of adventure, and I rose to the challenge by ordering the chicken liver and pork pate (K8000), a strange-sounding dish to my ears that didn’t look much better than it sounded. Once I dove into the brownish, gray mass of meat with a toasted baguette, however, the name and appearance of the dish ceased to matter. The pork meat dominates the tastebuds, with chicken liver adding a soft texture to every bite. I couldn’t get enough.

One of my companions, a vegetarian, went for the root vegetable rendang (K11,000), a curry that hails from Indonesia and Malaysia. She reported that the lemongrass and turmeric were well-balanced and, though not particularly sexy, the dish is one she’d recommend.

Vegetable rendang a palate-pleaser for those disinclined to meat.Vegetable rendang a palate-pleaser for those disinclined to meat.

Another tried the Manila clams (K11,000), which came on a bed of egg noodles that none of us noticed because we were too busy eating the clams. She complained they were too salty, but I found them to be succulent and savory. By the time we discovered the egg noodles at the bottom of the plate, they had congealed into a spongy mass, slightly cold and certainly not very appetising. Would they have been better if we noticed them sooner? Perhaps. I didn’t mind; the clams alone were worth the price.

Port Autonomy’s chef Kevin Ching created the menu options, touted as “anything but traditional” in the press release. The name of the restaurant comes from a type of coriander found commonly in Vietnamese cuisine, so it’s no surprise to find bun cha and pho onion soup offered alongside spring rolls and rice noodles. There’s also an item titled bo kho, and described as “beef brisket and oxtail stew”. That’s one to try on my return.

Romance aside for a moment, Rau Ram has a few shortcomings that bear mentioning. First and foremost, you’ll need to watch your step as you enter the bar. An annoyingly lethal concrete ledge rises about four inches off the ground near the entrance, inviting stubbed toes and glamourous face-plants upon arrival. If you end up bruised and bloodied by the fall, good luck fixing yourself up in the bathroom: Lit with candles, the fancy latrine offers not even close to enough light to see yourself. I could hardly see the toilet paper.

Obstacles and dim washrooms aside, Pun’s latest endeavour is worth a visit. The food is rare in its uniqueness, and the drinks strong in their alcohol content. On a rain-soaked night in Yangon, you’ll be glad you stepped inside.

Vegetable rendang a palate-pleaser for those disinclined to meat.Vegetable rendang a palate-pleaser for those disinclined to meat.

Rau Ram
Address: 64B Ye Kyaw Street, Pazundaung township
Restaurant Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Food: 9
Drinks: 8
Value: 8
Service: 10
X-factor: 10
Tax sticker: Yes