27 October 2018 Posted By : Peter Hum

Ottawa Dining: Rangoon's Burmese dishes impress with deep and surprising flavours

Rangoon Restaurant
634 Somerset St. W., 613-680-8821, rangoonrestaurant.ca
Open: Monday to Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday 5 to 10 p.m.
Prices: Most sharable salads $10.95, most sharable dishes under $20
Access: steps to front door, washrooms upstairs

A few years ago, I had a casual, off-duty meal of fish noodle soup and coconut chicken curry at Rangoon Restaurant. My lunch was tasty and even intriguing, and I resolved to return to give the family-run Burmese eatery’s menu a real spin.

I was finally spurred this month to revisit Rangoon when a Thailand-born, food-loving friend said she was making the trip from Toronto to Ottawa in part for her annual dinner at Rangoon. She had developed a taste for Burmese food while working “really, really north” in her homeland, “where there is no phone signal and lots of malaria,” and where dishes by the Burmese minority beguiled her.

My friend even tries to cook Burmese food at home, but says she can’t match the food at Rangoon, which takes its name from the former name of the largest city in Burma, which itself became Myanmar in 1989.

At our dinner, the delicious and even unique dishes by Rangoon’s chef-owner, Ngun Tial, had me kicking myself for not having enjoyed her food again sooner.

When my Toronto friend last ate at Rangoon, which opened in 2010, the restaurant was on Gloucester Street in downtown. It moved in mid-May of this year to Chinatown, taking over the long-vacant space where ZenKitchen had been.

Tial told me that at her old location, dinner business was scant. But in Chinatown, she’s found lunches quiet. Dishearteningly, we were the restaurant’s only eat-in customers the Saturday night we were there.

Maybe there’s just been too much mystery about Rangoon’s food. It is Ottawa’s only Burmese restaurant, and my Thai friend, who keeps track of such things, believes you could count similar restaurants in Canada on one hand.

Misunderstandings and false expectations may be factors. Before my long-ago lunch at Rangoon, I half-expected spicy, pungent food akin to Thai fare. But the flavours favoured in Tial’s food, while deep and satisfying, are less jarring and extreme, and the influences of Indian and Southwestern Chinese cuisines are also felt.

In Tial’s hands, staples such as onion, garlic and ginger work new magic, while more uncommon ingredients such as tangy tamarind, fried chickpeas and even sour but tantalizing fermented tea leaves can be discoveries.

We were pleased to get a selection of Rangoon’s appetizers, salads and soups into our stomachs.

After trying green tea leaf salad ($10.95), I might never want to eat romaine lettuce any other way. Fermented tea leaves added a tinge of bitterness to a savoury dressing that, while novel, was a quickly acquired taste. We appreciated the crunch of not only sesame seeds but also nutty toasted chickpeas.

Green tea leaf salad at Rangoon Restaurant. October 19, 2018. Errol McGihon / Postmedia

Ginger salad ($10.95) provided another variation on bitterness, offsetting shredded cabbage with mild pickled ginger and more crunchy components.

Ginger salad at Rangoon restaurant Postmedia

Green papaya salad ($10.95) differed markedly from its more wet, bracing and pungent Thai equivalent. Rangoon’s dish was more dry, still tasty but more subtly and nuttily so.

Green papaya salad at Rangoon restaurant in Ottawa Postmedia

While not as overtly flavourful as the salads, “chickpea bites” ($8) as the menu calls them, or paepyarkyaw in Burmese, were light, puffy triangles that were cleanly fried textural marvels, crisp outside but practically melting inside.

Chickpea bites at Rangoon Restaurant. October 19, 2018.

Five of us shared a big bowl of basa fish noodle soup ($11.95), also known as mohinga. At Rangoon, thin rice vermicelli swam in a fishy stock yellowed and thickened by broken down chickpeas. Like other dishes here, this dish doesn’t assault you with big flavours, but there is a depth to it that makes you want more and more.

Mohinga fish soup at Rangoon restaurant Postmedia

Of more than a dozen main courses — each is served with rice or noodles and vegetables or a la carte for sharing for $3 less per dish — we were thrilled above all by the spice and complexity of rice noodles ($17.95). They were cooked in the style of Southeast Asia’s Shan people, nearly obscured by a blanket of succulent chicken chunks and bolstered by not just a savoury sauce and chilies but also sour pickled mustard leaves, coriander and crunchy sesame seeds. “Mix, mix,” Tial told us when she brought the dish to our table. We did, before making very quick work of this winner.

Shan-style noodles at Rangoon Restaurant. October 19, 2018. Errol McGihon / Postmedia

Earlier, Tial had encouraged us to order her coconut chicken ($19.95). It was indeed a crowd-pleaser. I was most struck by the superior texture and flavour of the dish’s white meat, which Tial later told me had been dry-brined for several hours before cooking.

Coconut chicken at Rangoon restaurant Postmedia

Beef and basil stir-fry ($19.95) was another dish that differed from its Thai cousin. Here, the long-cooked then fried beef was chunky, and its sauce was mild and garlicky.

Beef and basil stir-fry at Rangoon restaurant Postmedia

Of three vegetarian dishes, we went for spicy chickpeas. While its price ($16.95) seemed like a lot, the dish delivered more rounded and long-lasting flavours than expected.

Spicy chickpeas at Rangoon restaurant Postmedia

For dessert, we skipped the ice cream and chose Tial’s house-made and dense cassava and coconut cream cake ($5.95), a sweet meal-ender common in Southeast Asia.

Cassava and coconut cream cake at Rangoon restaurant Postmedia

The restaurant is not licensed. Its premises are less alluring than ZenKitchen’s were. A few wall hangings evoke Burma, and for some, it will be disconcerting that one wall features a massive portrait of Myanmar leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, whose honorary Canadian citizenship was revoked last month because of Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis.

For what it’s worth, Tial and her family were refugees themselves, who came to Ottawa in 1999 after living in India for several years.

If it’s possible to put one’s palate ahead of politics, I’ll say this: I attended Canada’s Great Kitchen Party a few days before I went to Rangoon, and some haute food plates satisfied me less than Tial’s dishes, which for all their homeyness struck me with their savouriness, expert balance and high standards.

I will also mention that when my Thai friend left Rangoon, a very hospitable Tial sent her home with a packet of hard-to-get fermented tea leaves, so that she could try to make that salad, and a hug.

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