Hot Nights, and Daytime Cool

By Oliver Gruen 19 June 2014

YANGON — Eric Clapton is wafting from the speakers, there is cold beer in the glasses and the mixed crowd is in the mood to party.

It took the MOJO Lounge & Restaurant only half a year to become a Yangon hotspot for food and music, after internationals teamed up with locals to create the kind of fusion venue that would fit right in if it were transplanted to Barcelona, Boston or Bogota.

Located across from the Savoy Hotel on Inya Road, about half a mile north of Shwedagon Pagoda, MOJO adds another lively element to an already vibrant neighborhood.

Opened late last year by Jean Curci of Marseille, France, the cool two-story bar/restaurant, with a comfy porch on the outside, is one of a number of gastronomic businesses set up by French expatriates in Yangon. Naturally, many of his patrons are also French.

“You know,” a young French woman said with a mischievous smile, “we call it the French

mafia, because so many of us work for the French petrol company, Total.”

We visited MOJO twice: once for lunch, and again for the Monday Blues session.

For lunch, there were two specials of the day. We decided to go for the Myanmar Lunch Set (7,900 kyat), offered daily until 3:00 pm.

Starters included a clear chicken broth, which was savory and aromatic, with crisp carrots, broccoli and pieces of braised chicken breast. A mildly seasoned Myanmar tomato salad, with the right amount of oil and sesame seeds, went well with the soup.

The starters were followed by a Rakhine national fish curry with tamarind and chili. The consistency of the fish was remarkably firm, with the inside tender perfectly executed. The chili enhanced the flavor without the burn of chili in Mexican and Thai dishes.

For dessert we chose chocolate ice cream; two scoops were served in a martini glass. The ice cream was very creamy and chocolaty, and a good choice if you like dark chocolate. Interestingly, it did not melt quickly, even though we were seated outside.

We ended with a strong espresso.

By the time we received our dessert, a full hour had passed for the five-course meal to be served, with the apology that some of the staff were absent because of illness, but free ice water came regularly to compensate for the wait.

As an alternative to the five-course meal, you can also try the MOJO Platter (prawn rolls, spring rolls, chicken rolls, beef and chicken wings), which serves two for US$19, steak or butterfish ($10-13), or an assortment of tapas to share.

Singha Beer from Thailand (2,000 kyat) and white and red wines from France, Italy and Germany by the glass for $5 add to the international flavor.

When asked why he didn’t offer Myanmar Beer or local wines such as Aythaya or Red Mountain, which would attract the locals and support the national industry, Mr. Curci (who, incidentally, wears a longyi convincingly) made it clear that he takes pride in serving European wines, especially French ones. He added, however, that he is open to considering the Myanmar 2013 whites.

MOJO is one of the few bars in town to feature blues and swing music, helping to fill a gap for lovers of international live music.

The name comes from the African-American word “mojo,” which originally meant an amulet or a flannel bag containing magical ingredients (although blues legend Muddy Waters had something else in mind when he sang “Got My Mojo Working”).

In keeping with its name, MOJO hosts a weekly Monday Blues blues concert. The lineup on a recent night consisted of a French-Swiss guitar player and singer named Charles David Hay, who waits tables during the week, and British-born George Fogel (whose understanding of Myanmar music is tremendous) on piano.

The audience (French, Jamaicans, US citizens and local youngsters on the night we were there) enjoyed the two-set gig and sang along, even to lesser known songs.

The future plan is to build a professional stage on the first floor that will host international music played by visitors and those working in Yangon.

In addition to the many special events on offer (Happy Hour and Blues Monday, among others), MOJO also hosts Yangon’s “Mobile Monday,” an open-community platform for mobile phone industry professionals to network and socialize.

Due to MOJO’s success, its owner has also opened a new restaurant next door called the Golden Kitchen Tori, which offers yakitori and a range of Japanese, Korean and Myanmar food.

MOJO is certainly worth a visit, whether for a reasonably priced lunch or a dinner-and-music evening with mojitos, margaritas, Havana Club Rum and Armagnac served for $6.

This article first appeared in the June 2014 edition of The Irrawaddy print magazine.