I have had the misfortune of meeting many chefs. A lot of them are everything you’d expect them to be: Smug, self-congratulatory types with such a deluded sense of their own fabulousness that they make Donald Trump look like a humble wallflower.
Very few, it has to be said, are as likeable as Christian Martena, executive chef of The Strand’s long-awaited new restaurant. Not only is Martena a culinary wizard, he is warm, gracious and charmingly self-effacing with it. This is despite the fact that he has plenty of reasons to feel pleased with himself: His Bangkok restaurant, Sensi, is one of the city’s most acclaimed fine dining spots, and his wildly popular La Table du Strand received rave reviews when it debuted last year. So if he’s not going to gloat himself, I’m going to do it for him.
For starters, it’s impossible not to be blown away by The Strand Restaurant’s dramatic reinvention. Somebody needs to find the designer responsible and give them a medal. Gone is the tired décor and dated “Kipling woz ’ere” styling, and in its place is a staggeringly elegant monochrome dining room: a timeless, sophisticated backdrop to Martena’s culinary conjuring.
I have rhapsodised about Martena’s mastery here before and I will do it again, because not only is he passionate about creating great food, he is passionate about creating food people actually want to eat, which, as he will tell you himself, are two very different things entirely. He is an expert in well-balanced flavours and there is no better evidence of this than his six-course tasting menu (US$88 without wine): six plates of pure magic with bewitching wine pairings. The wagyu beef carpaccio, served with parmesan, deep fried egg yolk and fresh black winter truffle in a red wine reduction, is an immaculate combination of textures and subtle, earthy flavours (though I’m convinced that those truffles could make an old boot taste divine). Outstanding though it was, however, it was promptly trounced by my favourite dish of the evening: Pan-fried foie gras with potato mousse, morels mushrooms and foie gras velouté tortellini. It’s a perilously rich dish which attests to his Italian roots, and the hearty, rustic flavours were a welcome departure from the dainty creations that proceeded it. It was followed by a delightfully delicate combination of turbot and saffron fumet, flawlessly executed and gaspingly good.
Before the final course Martena arrived at our table for another act of sorcery, whisking up a champagne sorbet palate cleanser from magical clouds of liquid nitrogen – a simple gimmick, but one that never fails to impress. The final dish of slow cooked pigeon in a roasted coffee sauce didn’t do a whole lot for me: The pigeon was unquestionably sublime, but the sweetness of the potatoes just didn’t seem to sing for it in the same way that the earthiness of the other dishes did. The red wine it was paired with, on the other hand, went down a treat.
As Yangon’s most illustrious address and one of Southeast Asia’s most iconic hotels The Strand’s new restaurant was always going to be a big pair of boots to fill. But they are boots that Martena wears with an easy charm, and he has given the restaurant a new lease of life with his contemporary dishes, crafted from local ingredients and sprinkled with a touch of magic.
Trust me, you’ll want to make sure you don’t miss his next trick.
The Strand Restaurant
42, Strand Road, Yangon
Perfect for… fine dining, a hot date, dinner with the ‘rents