Restaurant review: Cafe Mandalay, Huddersfield
Cafe Mandalay in Huddersfield’s pedestrianised King Street describes itself as “Yorkshire’s first Burmese restaurant”. As far as I know, it’s Yorkshire’s only Burmese restaurant and one of only a handful in the whole of the UK.
But Burmese food is finding its way here, especially in London where there are a handful of family-run restaurants and supper clubs. More recently Lahpet in Shoreditch, a former street food pop-up, has been attracting a lot of attention with its modern take on Burmese food.
Learning about Burmese cuisine before my visit was a bit of a challenge. Google tells me it takes influences from its neighbours Malaysia, Thailand, China, Cambodia and Vietnam but with less fire and more subtlety, incorporating sweet, sour, salty, umami flavours. I only discovered later, MiMi Aye’s fascinating book Mandalay: Recipes and Tales from a Burmese Kitchen.
So, with little to go on, myself and a pal set off for Huddersfield and the cheery 40- cover restaurant with a big shop window that throws light onto the colourful wall panels and rough painted floorboards. The couple behind Cafe Mandalay are Myinzu Theint and fiancé Ben Popplewell who met at Huddersfield University. Myinzu had grown up in Myanmar before moving to London as a teenager. Ben had served a chef’s apprenticeship and worked in local pubs but like all chefs, wanted his own place. With Myinzu’s knowledge of Burmese food, it all seemed to fit.
The menu starts with Street Food dishes that include grilled chicken skewers, spiced whitebait and deep-fried quail in a spiced batter, but we’re intrigued by the mont lin ma yar, which translates as “man-and-wife snack”. It’s made by pouring a thin batter into a hot pan made of little hollows.
We get five half-moon shells filled with a softly baked quail’s egg. They are a revelation: crisp and feather-light, the crunchy shells and soft baked egg are a perfect marriage. They’re given a scattering of pea shoots and served with a pot of sweet chilli jam.
Chickpea tofu is another surprise. This tofu, it turns out, bears no relation to the bean curd tofu we are familiar with, but uses chickpea flour made into a paste, cut into triangles and deep fried. It reminds me of the panelle, the hot chickpea fritters you get in the markets of Palermo, and, at a fiver, it’s a great street snack.
The Burmese are big on salads, so from four on the menu we choose the intriguing lahpet thoke, or tea leaf salad. Tea leaves it seems, are a popular ingredient in Myanmar where they are fermented for months, sometimes years, then added to all kinds of dishes. This salad has crisp Chinese leaves, sesame seeds and crunchy peanuts mixed with the soft strands of fermented tea leaves. It is dressed in a sweet/sour/salty dressing, nicely balanced so that the flavour of the Assam tea leaves can peep through.
A large halibut fillet is a touch over-done but it’s helped by a spicy Masala sauce, crayfish tails and some very good crispy kale. At £21, it’s the most expensive dish on the menu.
There is a reasonable choice of vegetarian and vegan dishes: curried chickpeas, wild mushroom curry and stuffed palata, a rich and buttery flaky flatbread, a bit like Indian paratha. A filling of mushroom and kale transform it into superior comfort food, with a little jug of dark, sweet sauce stopping it all feeling a bit too worthy.
We finish with their single estate coffee “roasted within days of arriving”. That may be so, but it is weak, thin and luke-warm. I’m prepared to believe this is a blip in an otherwise intriguing meal.
There can’t be many cuisines still left to discover, but the food of Myanmar is arguably one of them. That’s no great surprise for a country that’s been under military rule and closed to outsiders for so many years. Now it’s opening up, people are able to travel there and discover this most underrated and uncharted food for themselves. If you’ve no immediate prospect of sampling the street food of Yangon, then Cafe Mandalay could be just the ticket.
Cafe Mandalay, 53 King Street Huddersfield HD1 2PZ. Tel: 01484 766623. www.cafemandalay.co.uk. Open: Monday-Thursday, 4 to 9.30pm, Friday-Saturday, noon to 10pm, closed Sunday. Price: dinner for two including wine, coffee and service approx. £80.