A Winning Formula at Rangoon’s The Lab

By Dani Patteran 20 September 2014

RANGOON — In a small, dimly lit room with exposed terracotta brickwork, a crush of well-heeled people squeeze around high wooden tables, talking animatedly and sipping cocktails late into the evening. This could be any chic bar in any hip neighborhood across the world—say London, New York or Madrid. But this is Burma, and this is The Lab, Rangoon’s first tapas bar.

Open for just four months, the place has established a firm reputation on the small but growing circuit of classy restaurants and bars across Rangoon—so much so that its owners describe many of their customers as regulars, so loyal that “they have become our friends.”

With single-minded dedication to locally sourced, high-quality ingredients and choice dishes served in a trendy but intimate atmosphere, it is not hard to see why.

“This is the secret: just to have decent food, decent drinks, reasonable prices, very good service—and then it goes by itself,” explains restaurateur Amine Zlaoui, one half of the French-Tunisian duo who founded and run The Lab.

“There was no tapas bar here, and it is the kind of food you cannot find here,” says business partner Raouf Baccouche. “So the idea was to bring something different.”

The menu is a hybrid of traditional Middle Eastern and North African cuisines combined with Spanish, French and Mediterranean dishes, and a few unusual additions such as mini beef burgers and Asian pork skewers. Prices are reasonable, ranging from 3,000 kyats (US$3) to 4,500 kyats for individual dishes, and upwards of 21,000 kyats for sharing platters.

Only open in the evenings, a rotating selection of specials keeps things lively, as do regular offers like the daily 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. happy hour; Wednesday 2-for-1 mojito nights; and a 15 percent discount on all tapas dishes every Sunday.

The pair’s attention to detail and passion for creating carefully selected, authentic food makes this place stand out. For those starved of decent Middle Eastern fare, it is a delight to find somewhere in Burma that takes such pride in serving genuinely delicious cuisine from the region.

The pair are ruthless in sourcing ingredients, and buy the majority of their food locally. “For us, it doesn’t make sense to have some items on the menu with imported stuff. … Many people are coming for a very specific item they crave, like falafel or quesadillas, and you have to have it,” explains Zlaoui.

Hummus, the classic Middle Eastern snack, is a hard thing to get right—there are about as many variations on hummus as there are opinions in the Middle East. But drawing on a traditional Palestinian recipe, Zlauoi and Baccouche excel and the result is just the right balance of salty, sour and smoky, with a lovely hint of cumin. It is worth coming here for the hummus alone.

Good cheese is in equally short supply in Burma, so The Lab is a haven for cheese lovers. Their share platters feature an impressive selection of hard, blue and goat cheeses. Labne, a soft yogurt cheese, is made fresh on site, and the result, served with flatbread, is creamy and tangy. The gently toasted mozzarella di buffalo is melt-in-the mouth delicious, while the sautéed calamari is delicate and fresh.

Admitting that their expertise lies more with food than behind the bar, the Tunisian duo have been lucky to find Win Naing Su, an expert bartender recently returned from London. Win Naing Su is the creative brains behind many of the drinks on offer, and “Yangon Night,” a Lab original cocktail, was entered into Burma’s first-ever bartending competition this year. Next year, says Zlaoui, they are in it to win.

But still in its infancy, The Lab has a few creases to iron out.

The size of the space guarantees an atmosphere that feels buzzing with only a few patrons, but as the place fills up, it quickly becomes noisy with the din of loud music and shouted conversations. Poor ventilation means the air is rapidly thick with cigarette smoke, making a meal here best enjoyed earlier, before the smoke is choking.

Despite this, regular customers will be pleased to hear that there are new dishes in the pipeline. Zlaoui and Baccouche are experimenting with a Vietnamese-inspired squid and shitake mushroom dish, Italian arancini stuffed rice balls and French petit farcis stuffed red bell peppers.

When will these be on the menu? “When we are ready!” Zlaoui laughs. “We don’t want to be in a hurry.”

And this is exactly the sort of attitude that is making The Lab so popular.

The Lab is located at 70/A Shwe Gon Daing Road, just off the Kabaye Pagoda Road junction.

Open every evening, Tuesday to Sunday, 5:30 p.m. until late.

www.thelab-yangon.com | www.facebook.com/thelab

Ph# 09250537979 | 09250675289