The story goes like this: Four people move to Rangoon, and after a number of years, they become friends and commiserate over the dishes from home that they all miss. There is simply no good Russian food in Burma’s biggest city, so why not take matters into their own hands? None of them have any previous restaurant experience, but they’re all passionate about the idea; so much so that they even recruit a chef who travels from Russia to train the staff and man the kitchen. It sounds like the making of a promising film, but is it the start of a great restaurant?
Tucked into sleepy Yanshin Road, just outside the many iterations of the foreigner-friendly Shwe Ohn Bin housing complexes, Kvas immediately stands out amid the area’s 24-hour convenience stores and impersonal pastry shops. What the owners have managed to achieve with the same kind of space that neighbors have turned into uninspiring, neon-lit fashion stores is impressive.
The restaurant has an unassuming feel and the high-backed leather booths offer patrons an unexpected feeling of privacy, given the fact that the venue is small and that glass walls are all that separate indoor diners from those sitting on Kvas’s popular outdoor patio. What’s more, the harsh-sounding whispers and exclamations that emanate from the kitchen lend this place a distinctly Russian feel, as if you could well be sitting in some little corner joint within sight of the Red Square.
The owners also have a good, healthy sense of Russian drama. “This is my life!” explains Zoriggo Gomboev. “Not only my life,” he adds, pointing to two of the co-owners who are enraptured in lively conversation involving plenty of gurgled Rs—“it’s their life.” Well, if Chef Timu Bovayez’s life depended on it, he would serve customers one of the grilled dishes on the menu, and specifically the pork shashlik. The tender cuts of marinated pork are served above a bed of lettuce and tomato, and are topped with pickled red onions. The pork is decidedly rich and satisfyingly salty, and the cuts themselves are surrounded by generous bits of fat that add to the flavor, as well as to the heart attack potential of the dish. (If only you could walk it off by taking a stroll around the Kremlin in -8°C weather afterward.)
Not for the faint-hearted or sensitive of stomach—not to mention the lactose intolerant—the mushroom Julienne was by far the most well-balanced appetizer of the night, and this particular foodie is fighting the temptation to melt into its creamy, cheesy perfection every night until she turns into a jolly, chubby old babushka. The borscht, even if a bit heavy on the oil, subtly combines beets, carrots, tomatoes and pork with the odd bit of sharp garlic or pickled onion. It set the stage for the chef’s love of tomatoes, which were in everything from the borscht to the pork shashlik, to sauce adorning a beef stroganoff that was oddly sweet and red in color.
It’s surprising that such rich food, designed to warm up the heart and insulate from the cold, could be so appetizing on one of Rangoon’s hottest and most humid nights. It might be due to the fact that the chef is slowly adapting traditional Russian cooking to cater to local palates; heightening the flavors so the salty is saltier, the spicy spicier and so on.
Personally, I don’t believe the dishes need too much tweaking, and as long as the chef doesn’t change a thing about the beautifully glazed piroshky that are baked in-house to perfection, Kvas might just turn out to be one of those gambles where everyone—the chef, the diners, the owners—come out winning.