Dining by the Light of a New Moon

By Grace Harrison 19 May 2014

YANGON — It’s barely a month old, but Gekko, located in the Sofaer building under the Lokanat Gallery, is already casting a cool, sophisticated glow on Yangon’s fast evolving dining scene.

Meaning “moonlight” in Japanese, the name of this new establishment—from the same people who brought you the Union Bar & Grill on the Strand Rd in March 2013—hints at its Japanese-inspired menu and motif, which aims to be both hip and cozy.

On offer is a selection of Japanese-Korean charcoal BBQ fare, served with a tapas-snack approach. The food is great, but Gekko is more a place for a civilized drink with nibbles than somewhere to fill a hungry stomach. Think cocktails and cigars, rather than down-home rice and noodles.

Gekko’s fascinating cocktails (US$7-$9) include the Hanami Old Fashioned, made with Japanese whiskey and tea syrup infused with cherry blossoms, and the Shiso Mojito, a blend of sweet-potato shochu, green chartreuse, fresh lemon, soda and shiso leaves.

According to bar manager U Zaw Min Tun (Mike), the shiso leaves are imported from Singapore for a dollar apiece. “If you want quality, it’s expensive, and quality is what we are selling here. You will not find our products elsewhere,” he explains.

Also on the drinks list are 15 kinds of sake, ranging in price from $5 to $8 a glass, or $35 to $151 a 720-ml bottle, and four kinds of shochu (made from barley or sweet potato). A bottle of Australian Shiraz will set you back just $20, while a Myanmar Beer is a fairly steep $4.50 for a pint or bottle.

The Union Bar’s top chef Rick Nay sometimes runs the Gekko grill, but usually it’s local chef U Aung Myo Oo, who has had a decade of training in Japanese restaurants in Japan and Dubai, taking the reins.

Among the more popular items on the menu are medium-sized plates of black pepper pork ($10), hibachi salmon ($12) or chicken katsu with bulldog sauce and potato salad ($8).

If you just want something to go with your drink, you can try the small plates of shaved octopus, edamame with lime sea salt or tasty pork gyoza, all in the $5-$7 range, or sample the yakitori menu, which includes Sriratcha chicken wings and a selection of vegetarian options ($4-$7 for a plate of two sticks).

For something more filling, there’s the exquisite squid, locally sourced with a dynamite chili-garlic sauce ($7) and well-marinated eggplant. Adding side dishes of miso soup ($4), pickles ($2), ginger ($1) or rice ($2) can round out a great meal. You can, of course, get a good bowl of ramen noodles ($12) or spicy Korean beef noodles ($10).

Note that the 5 percent government tax and 5 percent sales tax are not included. The prices are high and there’s no happy hour, so fatten your wallet before venturing in.

Quoted in dollars rather than Myanmar kyat, the menu indicates that Gekko’s target market is foreigners. Many regulars have migrated from the sister-ship Union Bar, according to Mike.

The well-trained, attentive staff learned their trade at the Union Bar, explains Mike, who has 15 years’ experience working on cruise ships and in Dubai clubs. “Now things here are better than before. But we need more skills and to build our human resources. I want to be part of this and am willing to help. I want my people to get jobs. It doesn’t matter if you are a manager or a cleaner. Whenever I can, I share what I’ve learned with the staff.”

Architect Amelie Chai of SPINE, who also designed Union Bar, has taken the Sofaer & Co building’s signature Manchester brown, blue and beige mosaic tiles and built around them. Exposed steel beams add an urban industrial feel, while wooden slabs and dramatic monochrome artwork merge with the brass fittings, lamps and zany overhead fans.

Portraits of Baghdadi Jewish brothers Isaac and Meyer Sofaer, who constructed the building in 1906, add a dram of social history and could benefit from captions.

The tiles and beams appear to be all that remain of the original space, so from a heritage perspective the authenticity is challenged. Nevertheless, the investment Gekko owners has made in this prominent old gem has given a facelift to Merchant Street and offers an example of what can be done with Yangon’s run-down old beauties.

This article first appeared in the May 2014 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.