Sitting in a Yangon taxi as your driver attempts to navigate traffic chaos can be a character-building experience. What would normally be a 10-minute jaunt across a couple dozen blocks, can often turn into an hour-long trek. Partially out of boredom, and part thanks to what must be built-up frustration, I get why taxi drivers are avid chewers of betel leaves. Used as a medicinal stimulant across countries in the Indian subcontinent, you just have to surrender yourself to the fact that your driver will think nothing of regularly opening his car door to eject a mouthful of betel-stained saliva onto the road. Highly popular across Myanmar, we finally came to the conclusion that most of the taxi drivers we encountered are high on the stuff, which makes for a great driving experience.
So a hair-raising nighttime race through Yangon’s neighbourhoods, including several stops to ask for directions and multiple deposits of betel later, we eventually arrived at our venue. Located north of the city on the banks of Inya Lake, L’Alchimiste is housed in a period colonial property, quite reminiscent of the White House. It was a little tricky to find and doesn’t look like much from the onset, but don’t be put off by the barred windows and fluorescent lighting that greets you. Once you’re ushered out to the back patio, the mood is completely transformed by the garden setting, leading all the way to the banks of the lake covered in water lilies. Floodlights illuminate the facade of the building, and smartly dressed waitstaff welcome you as you’re taken over to the wicker bamboo tables.
We went all-in on the traditional Burmese menu, starting with a fragrant grilled king prawn salad on a bed of mesclun greens with lime and honey dressing. This was followed by a beautifully fresh fillet of snapper, which came with a tomatoe and garlic salsa, fresh beans, cabbage and carrots cooked al dente. Dessert was a simple trio of home-made ice-cream. We were a little adventurous in choosing a wine from the nearby Aythaya vineyard, a drinkable sauvignon blanc blend with notes of grapefruit, gooseberry and cut grass recommended by the L’Alchimiste team.
One word of caution: the proximity to water and the outdoor setting means that you are a little at the mercy of bugs throughout the meal. We were given repellent cream and had limoncello candles lit around us to ward off the mosquitos. The staff were also relentless in standing over us with a bug deterrent contraption, waving this with nothing short of enthusiasm. Bless.
If this was an indication of what else Yangon’s fine dining scene has to offer, then sign me up. We were impressed by the food at L’Alchimiste, demonstrating a keen understanding of how to balance a menu of predominantly local flavours in a way that will have broad appeal to an international clientele. The staff were gentle and hospitable in their interactions with us, and we left the restaurant feeling highly satisfied.
Restaurant – 7/10
Experience – 8/10