MYANMAR RESTAURANT -- 7810-C LEE HWY., FALLS CHURCH. 703-289-0013. Open: daily 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. AE, D, MC, V. Reservations accepted. No smoking. Prices: appetizers $4.75 to $6.50, entrees $4.95 to $8.95. Full dinner with beer or wine, tax and tip $15 to
$20 per person.
Let me start today by confessing my weakness for storefronts serving the cuisine of small, distant countries. All the better if they hold fewer than 10 tables, at least one of which is occupied by a lone diner intent on food from his homeland. When the tables are dressed with pink vinyl imitating silk, perhaps with faux-lace plastic mats, and the walls bear a few flashy landscapes or travel posters, my hopes are buoyed. And when I spot the restaurant's sole waiter breaking off a conversation with the one-person kitchen staff to greet me, my appetite starts humming and my palate anticipates an adventure. The best sign of all, though, is a menu listing at least one dish I've never heard of, say, sour leaf soup or jackfruit curry. And the flaws that go with the package? I actually relish them, too.
Myanmar is a Burmese restaurant, just a few months old, that shows all the right signs. Its blue fluorescent lights would put off diners looking for an environment to flatter the complexion, and the slow service that's inevitable when a two-person staff tries to serve more than three tables at a time would drive some people crazy. What's more, I can understand an American clientele being unenthusiastic about bouncy, dense fried fish cakes or sour mustard plant with pork that's eyelash-curling in its saltiness and chewy besides. Culling dishes from this menu takes patience and perhaps luck. And anyone who goes to a Burmese restaurant and orders the "American cuisine" deserves those shoe-leathery sliced beef kebabs and mashed potatoes that taste like packing material. On an unfamiliar foreign menu with 42 first courses and 57 entrees, you're bound to make a bad investment here or there, but it won't set you back more than about $7.
First, recognize that a wine list with six of its nine entries misspelled (and hardly any of them actually in stock) should point you toward beer. Second, after you've removed the American dishes from consideration, you might as well skip past the Thai ones, too. Third, experience suggests that a long list of first courses is probably sending an important message: Go heavy on the appetizers.
Burmese cooking integrates hot, sour, salty and bitter, with frequent flourishes of sweet. If you, too, celebrate those contrasts, this could be your kind of food. You're invited to intensify the flavors yourself with roasted chilies set out on the table or balachan ngapi gyaw, a fishy, searing condiment of dried shrimp and red chilies with crisp fried onions, which you can order if you like to live on the edge.
In general, the flavors are strong: Fish soup is definitely fishy, sour vegetables rival the sharpest of pickles, and when garlic or coriander or dried shrimp is part of the recipe, you'll know it. While the curries are wimpy, just mild meat stews, the dips for the appetizer fritters are knockout punches of tamarind or coriander and chilies, the soups can startle, and the spicy dishes ooze fragrant red oils.
Three soups, served in family-size bowls, typify what's interesting about Burmese food. Ohno kaukswe is creamy with coconut milk and studded with chicken, earthy and seductive. Mohingar is more forceful, a thick, grainy fish broth the color of Army fatigues. It's an untamed cousin of France's bourride, perhaps strange and funky at first, but it grows on you. Both these soups are filling, accompanied by a bowl of noodles as thin as twine. Ladle the soup over the noodles and squeeze on plenty of lime, shredding in a few coriander leaves, onions or chilies if you like. Sour leaf soup is for those of us addicted to the strongest olives, anchovies, capers and pickles. It's a clear tart broth with rough-textured greens and a few plump shrimp -- wonderful if it suits your palate's range.
Accompany the soups with some fritters -- in Burma you might even cut them into the soup as croutons. Squash fritters are the most popular, the vegetable nearly melting inside its crackly fried batter. They're as light as tempura but twice as crunchy and three times as flavorful. Gram fritters -- chickpea cakes lighter and milder than falafel -- are subtle, and take well to their tamarind dip. Potato samosas and vegetable egg rolls are light, thin-crusted versions of their Indian and Chinese counterparts. The cabbage rolls taste unfinished, or at least unseasoned and unsauced; their cilantro dip, though, is dazzling.
The other category of first courses is salads, a range from mango to sardine. Like the fritters, they come in portions meant for sharing. These chopped and shredded melanges are accented with crunchy dried beans, crisp fried garlic, sesame oil, cilantro, scallions and sometimes chilies; all would benefit from a squeeze of lime and maybe a dash of salt. A Burmese would be delighted to find pickled green tea leaf salad on the menu, but its bitter astringency makes it an acquired taste; the pungent ginger salad probably has more universal appeal. A salad of green papaya and another of sliced fried tofu are even more succulent. Cauliflower is served warm and vinegary, a touch sugary, with flecks of cilantro and sesame seeds.
The entrees have one unfortunate characteristic in common: They're oily. Beyond that, they are mostly simple stews -- chunks of pork with tart fresh mango, or blandly curried chicken and potatoes -- or stir-fries of squid with shrimp and ham or of chopped sour vegetables.
A whole fish is fried darkly crisp and coated with a startling amount of hot pepper and salt. And there are noodle dishes from all of Southeast Asia, served hot or cold. The waiter was right to suggest that we'd like Penang-style noodles, warm and fragrant with curry spices, stirred with chicken and bright, firm vegetables. But no entrees are more satisfying than the vegetarian ones, especially the pumpkin curry, which tastes like the slightly sweetened Afghan stewed pumpkin, though without its yogurt topping. Mushrooms, pale meaty ones, are stir-fried with noodle-thin sheets of dried bean curd. Tofu also joins forces with tomatoes, green or sour mustard plant or bean sprouts.
Desserts don't get more homey than Myanmar's. Some days there's a comforting tapioca -- warm, sweet coconut milk floating translucent pearls. Often there's a grainy cake made from cream of wheat and rice flour, with a hint of molasses flavor from its palm sugar, pleasant even when it's a little chewy from reheating. Ice cream with chocolate cream, and apple or banana cake are on the menu if not always in the kitchen.
Dining at Myanmar is about as predictable as a hike in an unfamiliar forest. You need to be prepared and might have to put up with a few wrong turns. But it's an invigorating adventure.
New Heights has another hill to climb. Its fine young chef, John Wabeck, is leaving by the end of the month to become chef at Brix in Napa Valley. -- P.C.R.