Published in the February 2014 edition of Mann Yatanarpon Airlines Inflight Magazine
Few restaurants have mastered the ability to cater to hundreds of people in as intimate a manner as Yangon’s Padonmar Restaurant. On a Sunday evening, with 200 diners present in the outdoor garden alone, restaurant owner Sonny Aung Khin leisurely makes his way from one table to the next, chatting to diners and fine-tuning the arrangements of his staff (many of whom sport headpieces), and even stopping to breathe in the scent of an idle pot of coconut infused rice. He is tall, dressed in an immaculate suit, laughs heartily and speaks in a baritone.
Despite the fact that Sonny spends day and night with tourists in Myanmar – who at this time of the peak tourist season, are largely from Western countries, as well as a busload of Thais – Sonny doesn’t hesitate in admitting that he’s not one to take a vacation himself.
“I’m not a holiday person,” he shrugs. “But I like work-related travel.”
In the cooler months of October to February, when it’s possible to sit outside at any time of day in Padonmar’s lush surrounds, the restaurant can serve 300 people at a time during lunch and 400 in the evening. Yet it doesn’t feel crowded because there’s such an array of tropical vegetation (and even the odd squirrel) that divides the driveway of this 80-year-old mansion into separate dining sections. Some of the vines were planted by Sonny five years ago after his restaurant moved from Inya Road to this larger establishment, and he continues to tend to them even now, he said.
The largest outdoor section is spread across the lawn, which is softly lit up at night with red and purple lamps. Inside, there is the annexed Padonmar Hall, which can seat up to 140 people simultaneously, and its walls are adorned with a mural depicting – you guessed it – nature at its loveliest. There’s also a “hall of fame” – which are framed and autographed photographs of some of Sonny’s most high profile guests.
“US Senator John McCain came alone the first time but returned for another meal with three senators,” he said with a smile. Singer Cliff Richard, US Ambassador Derek Mitchell and a chance meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi on a plane are just a few of at least a dozen other portraits on display.
The restaurant is also popular among businesspeople – who have been coming to Myanmar in ever increasing numbers since the country embarked on a range of democratic reforms in 2011.
“Myanmar has been flooded with tourists since 2011 and we’re now seeing a huge increase in the numbers of businesspeople. I don’t know how successful they are during their visits, but they do need to eat!” he said with a laugh.
Inside the mansion itself are four rooms, which can be hired exclusively for dinner parties of 10 to 28 people.Padonmar also hosts wedding receptions for around 80-100 people in its gardens. Buffet dinners are also an option and traditional musicians provide nightly entertainment. There’s some very eye-catching art on display – both photography and paintings (such as the Naga warrior tribe mid-flight with spears) however Sonny said, “I didn’t want to exhibit so much art that it gives the impression of being a gallery. The art on display for sale, which is done to support local artists,” he said.
Surprisingly, whilst the setting is grand, the prices here at Padonmar are very, very reasonable – particularly considering the quality and care that goes into preparing the food. Mains are around US$4 and cocktails are around $3.50.
Padonmar promotes local wines such as Red Mountain and Aythaya, as well as keeping a well stocked cellar of foreign wines. Unless you’d prefer to opt for a freshly squeezed juice over an alcoholic refreshment, trying the rediscovered Pegu Club cocktail – which dates back to 1920 – is a must for any diner at Padonmar.
The menu itself literally weighs a kilogram (in part due to the red leather binding) and it has more vegetarian options than most vegetarian restaurants – and there’s an even split between Burmese and Thai fare.
“We have separate kitchens for the Thai and Burmese chefs because the cuisines are so different from one another,” he said. Sonny said that Burmese food is closer to Indian than any other he knows of, yet many visitors assume it will share the qualities of its ASEAN neighbours.
Sonny spent 16 years living in Bangkok and grew fond of its healthy cuisine, which he said is extremely popular among his local guests in particular.
“Myanmar people come here to eat Thai because they can have local food any night of the week at home,” he said.
“And often tourists tell me that they’re glad to eat Thai because they’ve spent the last 10 days straight eating Myanmar food!” he said with a chuckle.
Nonetheless, the refreshing difference about eating Burmese food here is that while maintaining the traditional flavours, it’s light on oil and free of MSG and cholesterol.
“We use sunflower oil which contains no cholesterol,” he added by way of explanation.
According to traditional Myanmar values, the more oil that is added to a dish, the more welcome a guest is and the wealthier the host is – however this notion is slowly beginning to change as people become more health conscious. The widespread use of MSG, however, remains a problem, particularly at street stalls in Myanmar. It was introduced relatively recently as (an unnecessary) flavour enhancer and people such as Sonny, who is also Vice-Chairman of the Myanmar Restaurants’ Association, is one of a handful of the prominent members of the local hospitality industry trying to send a message about MSG’s harmful health effects.
The restaurant’s signature dish is the hilsa fish, which is a medium sized fish that can also be found in the Chittagong region of neighbouring Bangladesh. The fish is cooked so slowly that the bones simply melt into the juices.
“We used to cook the fish in a traditional oven for eight hours, but nowadays we use a pressure cooker and it takes a bit less time,” he said casually.
The grilled aubergine salad – “everybody’s favourite” – as he describes it, which was accompanied by very finely sliced tomatoes with just a touch of dressing, was the perfect accompaniment to the pork and mango curry and mutton and potato curry (both of which are traditional Burmese dishes). Often at restaurants that cater to tourists, too much of the usual spice is left out on the assumption that a foreign palate would prefer it that way. Thankfully, this is not the case at Padonmar – while undoubtedly being less spicy than home-cooked meals, there’s still a delicious kick to every dish.
I was encouraged to sprinkle the “cheese of the region” over the dishes, which is dried shrimp flakes, although I fell short in courage of being as generous with the dried chilli flakes, which are also hugely popular in Myanmar.
As an entree I had the clear, traditional Karen fish soup, which Sonny said isn’t something found in many restaurants in Myanmar – unless of course, you’re visiting Karen State.
We finished off with banana fritters, which are cooked in a light batter and served with natural honey.
Somehow Padonmar Restaurant is able to serve up authentic meals that don’t take a couple of hours to serve and devour (in fact, you could be there less than an hour if necessary, the service is that good). This makes it the perfect spot for a tourist or businessperson on the go in Myanmar.
Padmonmar Restaurant is located at No. 105/107 Kha-Yae-Bin Road, Dagon Township, Yangon, Myanmar.
Phone: 01 538 895
Credit cards are accepted.