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Irrawaddy's Burmese cuisine reflects Chinese and Indian influences, as well as its own soul

Wednesday, Apr 24 1996
After a long and hectic city day, there's something to be said for soft serenity and tangy food: dinner at Irrawaddy, in other words. On the culinary Embassy Row that is Lombard Street between Van Ness and Broderick, Irrawaddy fills -- capably and inexpensively -- the Burmese niche.

Burma (known today as Myanmar) is another of those countries (like the nearby Thailand and Vietnam) whose cuisine reflects the commingled influences of India and China. (The restaurant takes its name, incidentally, from Burma's largest river.) From India come curry and other spices, potatoes, marination in yogurt; while the use of ginger, tea leaves, and baby corn belongs more to China. Irrawaddy's menu also includes tropical flavors that seem distinctively Indochinese: lemongrass, for example, mint, tamarind, and coconut milk.

But Burma is closer to India than is either Thailand or Vietnam, and so the Indian influence on the cooking is more pronounced. The first courses, in particular, resemble the sorts of dishes one would expect to be served at an Indian restaurant.

Festival chicken ($5.75) was very much like its tandoori version, except the pieces of boneless white meat had been grilled instead of roasted in a clay oven. But the yogurt-and-spice marinade had the same effect, keeping the chicken moist and tender despite the dry heat.

Split-pea fritters ($3.50) were like yo-yo-size disks of falafel, the Middle Eastern staple. Ground split peas were combined with spices and onion and then deep-fried to a crispy gold. Ours were a little dry and not as hot as they should have been; a little dipping sauce -- yogurt and cucumber -- would have been a nice touch.

The menu described the Irrawaddy soup ($6.75) as "mildly spicy with a taste of lemongrass." When it reached the table, it tasted mainly of onion and was seriously undersalted. At our request the server brought to the table a beautiful, doll-size porcelain cup of fish sauce, which, when spooned into the soup, brought out the citrus perfume of the lemongrass as if by magic.

Golden triangles ($4.75) were basically samosas -- phyllo dough wrapped around spicy potatoes and beef, then deep-fried. The one truly striking appetizer was the onion fritter ($4.50), which looked a bit like a deep-fried Brillo pad but had good crispiness and the mild sweetness of cooked onion. It was served with two dipping sauces -- chili-garlic and sweet-and-sour -- that enhanced several of the other first courses.

The first courses came swiftly, but after that, the service was slow if polite. There was only one server for the entire dining room, and she was never in a hurry. But it didn't matter, because we weren't either. The dining room, with its luxuriance of bright blue cushions, looks like the perfect place for a pillow fight; but we were happy to recline at our low, almost Japanese-style table and let the food happen.

Slowly the restaurant filled (to about half-capacity with an eclectic crowd from the various surrounding neighborhoods: a table of post-fratty types from the Marina; an immaculate couple from Pacific Heights), and takeout orders were rushed from the kitchen to people waiting at the front podium. (Irrawaddy also offers free delivery, with a minimum purchase of $20.)

Considering the hallowed place of the pig in the Chinese diet, it was odd to find Irrawaddy's menu devoid of pork dishes. The Burmese make do with chicken, beef, and seafood. And onions. Sliced white onions figured prominently in many dishes, adding not only their distinctive bite (which rises through the nose), but also a fair amount of simple bulk.

The beef with mint ($9.75), for instance, was rife with neatly sliced onions, along with strips of beef (sauteed, according to the menu, but with the fall-apart tenderness that results from braising). Tomatoes, button mushrooms, and lemongrass held modest bit parts in the preparation; the other big player was mint, whose cool, tingly, slightly grassy flavor dominated all the others. The dish had a rich taste, but I would have liked it with a bit more spice. (We'd fudged when the server asked how hot we wanted things; you never really know what they mean when they say "hot." Hot can be pleasantly smoldery or inedibly scorching. With a shrug of shoulders, we'd chosen "medium," which amounted to very little.)

Jade shrimp ($10.95) had a brittle flavor (garlic sauteed too long?) that needed another, fruitier dimension. The dish included tamarind, which promised some relieving sweetness, but that flavor never showed its face. The spinach, too, was timid on the tongue, though it did add good color. The prawns themselves were large and beautifully cooked, with just the right moist springiness.

The best of the main courses, the Mandalay noodles ($6.75), was also the most unassuming. A generous pillow of egg noodles (like fresh tagliatelle) was tossed with braised chicken, chopped scallions, and fried onion strips in a coconut-milk sauce tweaked with lemon juice. A sifting of roasted split-pea powder on top resembled the layer of crumbled roasted peanuts that finishes many pad Thai recipes; in fact, the noodles were as good as any pad Thai I've had. Better, because the chicken's heft made it a real meal.

Like so many restaurants these days, Irrawaddy accommodates the needs of vegetarian guests without making strenuous compromises. Many of the courses are meatless in origin, and the kitchen also offers vegetarian versions of dishes that do include animal flesh. The vegetable Rangoon noodles ($6.75), for example, are essentially the Mandalay noodles without the chicken.

If you like Thai and Vietnamese cooking, you'll like Irrawaddy. Its Burmese food is comfortably similar to its sibling cuisines, yet just exotic enough -- heartier -- to enliven palates fatigued by too many indistinguishable versions of lemongrass beef or pad Thai. But if you're in a hurry, use the takeout service, because the dining room itself is bathed in a languorous peace.

Irrawaddy, 1769 Lombard, S.F., 931-2830. Mon-Thurs 5-9:30 p.m.; Fri-Sun 5-10 p.m.

About The Author

Paul Reidinger


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