Teni East Kitchen Marries California Sensibilities with Burmese Flavors
And the menu is refreshingly compact, consisting of about five starters, five vegetables, and 10 meat/fish entrees.
Teni East Kitchen is popularizing Burmese cuisine with crispy spicy catfish, coconut shrimp curry, and roti.
There are, of course, the two hyper-popular East Bay Burma Superstar locations, in Alameda and Oakland. But those have been joined in recent years by newcomers that include Royal Rangoon in Berkeley, Grocery Café in East Oakland, and even a quick-service Burmese-barbecue hybrid catering to the lunch crowd in downtown Oakland. Now comes the latest entry, Teni East Kitchen, which debuted in May inside a former sushi joint near Broadway and 40th Street in North Oakland.
For better or for worse, all these new eateries will inevitably be measured against Burma Superstar, sort of the mother ship when it comes to Burmese cuisine in the Bay Area, at least in terms of introducing it to Western palates. In that respect, Teni is in an interesting position: Its owner and chef, Tiyo Shibabaw, helped open Superstar’s two East Bay locations, where she served as a manager for the last 10 years and helped develop several dishes.
I might have expected a thinly veiled copy, then, when Shibabaw decided to open her own place (“Myanmar Supernova,” perhaps?). Instead, Shibabaw has created something entirely her own—a restaurant that goes even further than Superstar in fusing California sensibilities of freshness and lightness with the flavor profiles of Burma and southeast Asia. And while the authenticity police may scream bloody murder, it’s a philosophy that’s in line with the tradition of Burmese food, itself a kind of mash-up of influences incorporated from the larger countries surrounding it. Which is one of the main reasons why, Shibabaw argued, it has become so popular.
“Just where Burma is located, you have these other countries of India, Thailand, and China, so it does have a little bit of everything that accommodates everyone’s palate,” she said. “If you like spicy, we have spicy, but there are also more mild flavors; if you like curry, there are Indian-influenced dishes.”
Among those three influences, Shibabaw skews most heavily to the Thai end of the spectrum, not surprising given that cuisine’s lighter flavor profile works nicely with her California approach. A good example is the coconut shrimp curry, as impressive a version of the dish as I’ve tried. The reason, I think, is that the delicate curry tasted light while retaining complexity from layers of nicely balanced flavors. Kaffir lime leaves lent a citrus note to the sweet coconut creaminess of the sauce, while lemongrass added a floral aroma. Thai chilies packed a lingering heat that built slowly to a fiery climax with each bite. The use of shallots, meanwhile, added a robust base to the dish, which was anchored by a generous helping of fresh, sweet butterflied shrimp cooked to just this side of doneness. Finally on top, shaved radishes and lightly dressed pea shoots.
It’s a lovely dish and many of its elements—the lightness and freshness, the layers of flavor, a background of spice—can be seen all over the menu. That menu, by the way, is refreshingly compact, consisting of around five starters, five vegetables, and 10 meat/fish entrees. Shibabaw said she did this intentionally, preferring to offer a curated selection of “all-star dishes” instead of the typical kitchen-sink approach.
It came as a nice surprise that some of my favorite items were salads. Let’s start with the tea leaf salad, probably the most well-known Burmese dish and kind of a prerequisite for anyone serving the cuisine in the Bay Area. The twist at Teni is that Shibabaw swaps baby kale leaves for the typical romaine lettuce. I admit that I rolled my eyes at this oh-so-California addition, but Shibabaw’s explanation made sense: Kale is hearty enough to hold up to the dish’s myriad ingredients, including roasted nuts and seeds, chili paste, lime, fried garlic, and the tea leaves themselves, which are fermented into a kind of pungent paste. And she’s right; the kale does hold up better than romaine, which tends to wilt and get soggy. More importantly, though, the salad itself is great, showing off the dish’s characteristic (and wonderful) blend of spicy, earthy, funky, savory, and crunchy.
I won’t tell you not to get the tea leaf salad, but there are a couple of excellent alternatives if you’re looking to branch out. My favorite was the pea shoot salad. Admittedly it doesn’t sound exciting, but it packed a punch. Beautifully plated (as nearly all the dishes were at Teni), the shoots arrived glistening with a dressing that combined palate-pinging notes of chili paste, shallots, fish sauce, roasted chickpea powder, garlic, and lime juice, in addition to crunchy cabbage, peanuts, and toasted garlic chips. The ginger chicken salad had similar flavors and is a good option if you want something a bit heartier—it’s big enough to work as a light lunch.
One thing I will tell you to get is the roti. I’ve seen this delicious, doughy flatbread that originated in India more and more on menus around the Bay Area, but most often in the form of denser wedges about the size and thickness of pita bread and served with a meat curry. Made with butter rather than oil, Teni’s is the Malaysian roti canai style with a richer, fluffier, flakier consistency that I found irresistible. To balance that, Shibabaw smartly paired it with a light lentil curry dip that doesn’t compete with the bread. It’s a must-order.
Don’t skip either on exploring the vegetables. My favorite was the sliced cauliflower and sweet corn served in an aromatic dressing of ginger-infused oil, turmeric, white wine, shallots, and Thai chili. The seasonal mixed veggies—cauliflower, chard, potatoes, beans, and mushrooms—had a similar sweet/spicy/savory sauce.
Among the mains, standouts included the sweet, rich, succulent bone-in duck curry; the cumin pork belly—probably the most Chinese-influenced dish, featuring thinly-sliced wedges of pork belly wok-tossed with basil, shallots, and spices; and the chicken-cardamom-curry served in a nicely tart red curry spiked by pickled mango.
There weren’t any real clunkers to be found on the menu, but there were some dishes I’d skip. The salmon, served with a sweet chili sauce and (again) pea shoots, was good, but ultimately boring. Similarly the potatoes and halved, hard-boiled eggs didn’t add much of anything to the nice sweet-and-spicy sauce in which they were served. Another minor complaint was the repetition of ingredients—I could have done with a few less pea shoots and roasted baby potatoes.
But almost across the board the proteins were fresh and well prepared and the sauces light and flavorful. My very favorite dish may have been the catfish. The garlic-ginger marinated bites of fried fish are battered lightly in potato starch and heaped with balachung sauce, a Burmese chili concoction made in-house with chili flakes, garlic-infused oil, shrimp powder, fish sauce, and lime juice.
The dish brings up another point worth noting: It’s always tempting in the case of some Asian food—especially in the Indian-Chinese-Thai genre—to order it to go. You can certainly do that at Teni, but the kitchen’s approach makes it much more rewarding to eat there. It’s a pleasant, airy space—albeit one that could use a bit more decoration—the service is great, and dishes, such as the pea shoot salad and catfish, are undeniably better when served fresh and eaten on the spot.
As of this writing, the restaurant was set to start serving beer and wine but hadn’t gotten that approval. Shibabaw also said she is shooting for a hard liquor license this fall. All of which makes the restaurant an increasingly attractive and viable alternative to a perennially packed little Asian eatery down the street: Burma Superstar.
This report appears in the September edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.
2016-08-26 04:16 PM