Dockside Dining at ‘Port Autonomy’

By Oliver Gruen 29 January 2015

YANGON — Harbor-fronts are a world of their own. Often grungy and dark, and busy with all possible modes of transport, they burst with vitality and multi-culturalism. Ships and sailors arrive, bringing goods from the rest of the world, and containers full of local merchandise for export sail out. Buzzing and bustling harbors, from Hong Kong to New York, are an endless source of fascination. Yangon’s port is no exception.

The newest addition to Yangon’s riverfront is a pop-up project—the first of its kind in Myanmar. The Transit Shed 1 (TS1), named after its location, provides a possible glimpse into the former capital’s commercial and cultural future. It’s modern and hip, and holds on to local tradition with one hand, while beckoning to the outside world with the other.

Inside this weathered industrial shed is a space teeming with art, crafts and, now, cuisine. The latest part of the venture is Port Autonomy, a restaurant self-described as a “modern take on a dock-side Burmese beer hall.” Only open since November 2014, it is fast becoming a hot spot in the southern part of town near Strand Road.

From outside, a neon sign in classic 1950s US style first attracts the eye. Sheets of corrugated iron make up some of the walls and roof of the venue that is open on two sides, allowing any breeze to flow through, aided by ventilators. It might be described as an open-air bistro.

The crowd is chiefly comprised of the young nouveau riche, a smattering of Western tourists and international professionals living and working in Yangon who have apparently taken to the venue with relish. The restaurant often fills up by 8 pm, so reservations are recommended.

Our table was already set and a friendly waiter led us to it. Our first order was the Jetty Punch, a cocktail made of white rum, pineapple and lemongrass, served in an enamel cup (US$5)—an unusual presentation for a high-end drink. The drink was refreshing and the tastes married perfectly—the enamel cup prevented the ice cubes from melting too quickly.

Myanmar Beer is served by the can ($2) and there are three varieties of wine on offer—two white and one red ($5 per glass). We tried the two whites. The 2012 Chardonnay “Domaine de la Beaume” from southern France was served at the right temperature (below 10°C) but its typical vanilla undertone was yet to develop. This golden yellow colored wine was one to be drunk in three years, when it reaches its peak.

A 2013 Chardonnay from Yali in Chile was a little lighter in color and evinced tropical aromas such as mango and a subtle lemon and vanilla. Both wines would pair well with the fish dishes offered on the menu. Missing from the wine list were the New Latitude wines from Myanmar, including the Sauvignon Blancs from both Aythaya and Red Mountain wineries in Shan State.

Port Autonomy’s kitchen is located on a stage at the rear end of the venue, giving the chef a great view of the whole restaurant. Five local staff serve under executive Chef Kevin Ching, who hails from Hawaii. His baseball cap said “Aloha”—Hawaiian for love, affection, peace, compassion and mercy. Chef Kevin could be seen closely guiding his staff, as well as caring for the customers at their tables.

The menu offered an Andaman Rock Lobster Roll, with lemon aioli and an iceberg salad garnish ($8); Green Gazpacho ($6); and a courageous Watermelon and Tomato Salad with feta cheese and green olives ($7).

The main dishes were seafood-driven. Soft Shell Crab Melt ($10); Lobster Paella ($12); and Fried Soft-Shell Crab with Green Tomatoes (starting at $6), were reminiscent of southern European food whereas theGoan Fish Curry ($8) and the Hot Fried Chicken ($10) demonstrated a fresh approach to Southeast Asian cuisine, melding contemporary Myanmar tastes with an international twist—all without leaving tradition behind.

The chicken was deep fried and crunchy on the outside, very tender on the inside and not at all greasy. The meat was well-cooked, right to the bone. The Burmese Buffalo Sauce added a distinctly Asian note, whereas the pickles offered on the side reflected a Southeastern European twist. The two worked well together.

A huge compliment must be given to Chef Kevin if the Soft-Shell Crab Melt is an original composition. Toasted white bread, with a hint of smokiness, provided the perfect texture to complement the spicy crab mixed with green chili aioli and salsa verde. All this was topped with generous slices of thick melted cheese.

If you dig an internationally oriented venue with a hipster crowd, and are content dining to the sounds of loud club, dance and house music, this is your spot. It may not offer Myanmar authenticity or an opportunity to mingle with the locals, but the cuisine at TS1’s Port Autonomy, and its thoughtful presentation, certainly warrant a visit.

Port Autonomy is located between Lanthit Jetty and Kaing Dan No (1) Jetty on Oo-Pa-Sa Street, Seik Kan Township, just off Strand Road. Tel: 09 -253 710 651 www.ts1yangon.com

This story first appeared in the January 2015 print edition of The Irrawaddy magazine