In many ways, the cuisine of Burma (also known as Myanmar) is a combination of the influence of its neighbors, Thailand, India and China. Many of the ingredients are the same but countered with different combinations of spices and sauces. At first glance, dishes can seem like familiar territory, made with the curry, chilies, noodles and coconut milk seemingly culled from any Asian menu. But there is definitely a difference.
Green Elephant Gourmet, located in Palo Alto's Charleston Shopping Center, allows diners to sample some classic Burmese cuisine, as well as offering an extensive menu of easily recognized Chinese dishes. While Chinese food is in the majority, much of the appeal of Green Elephant is in the opportunity to try something new.
The decor of the 7-year-old restaurant reflects a multitude of influences as well, from strangely decorative objets de art to Welsh dinnerware and Chinese cloisonné. An effort has been made to bring the cream-and-cranberry decor a few steps up from shopping-center neutrality. The entryway is defined with spikes of bamboo and a dramatic arch resembling an elephant tusk. White tablecloths add a touch of formality.
Owners Christina Win and Michael Maumg are both 20-year veterans of the restaurant business and have integrated both traditional and family recipes into the mix. Green Elephant Gourmet tones down the fiery complexity of both its Burmese and Chinese offerings, most likely as a concession to Midpeninsula sensibilities. Even chopsticks are not provided unless specifically requested.
A perfect introduction to Burmese cuisine is the tea-leaf salad ($10.25). Fermented green tea leaves, called laphet, are hand mixed at the table with sesame seeds, peanuts, fried garlic, sunflower seeds and dried yellow beans into a base of lettuce and tomatoes. It's a pretty dish when presented, with its little piles of different-colored ingredients, and the mix is a wonderful blend of textures and flavors. The restaurant imports the laphet directly from Burma since this ingredient apparently is not readily available in the States.
A lunch special of poodi ($8.95) included a bowl of thick, well-seasoned hot-and-sour soup and a sparse and skippable plate of tired iceberg lettuce with a sweet sesame-based dressing. Poodi is a Burmese potato curry rife with onions, garlic and chili, served with rice and two thin pancakes. Our waitress graciously explained the best technique for compiling the saucy dish into messy but satisfying roll-ups, with plenty left over for another meal at home.
A menu special of shrimp with eggplant ($12.95) was rendered Burmese style with a piquant basil sauce. The ingredients were well prepared, the flavors unified into one of our most satisfying selections.
Less successful was the appetizer of fried eggplant sticks ($7.95), which were so thick with batter that the eggplant was virtually undetectable. The two garlic and chili sauces that accompanied the dish provided the only splash of flavor and color.
While Burmese selections take up one page of the menu, the rest is devoted to Chinese dishes, including egg rolls, sweet-and-sour shrimp, Mongolian beef and Kung Pao chicken. We feasted one evening on hot and spicy tofu ($8.95), braised silken tofu bathed in a delectable but benign chili-garlic sauce; and a mild chicken with green beans in black-bean sauce ($10.95). Dishes were generally very light-handed in terms of spiciness, despite the printed pepper warnings on the menu, and most entrees benefited from an extra dab of chili sauce or peppers.
Service was exceptional. Servers dressed in richly colored sarongs embroidered in gold stopped by often to see how we were doing and took time to explain ingredients and preparations. They accommodated a request to use gluten-free soy sauce with a smile, and made sure water glasses were filled constantly and unobtrusively.
Green Elephant Gourmet is a pleasant neighborhood stop and an opportunity to cross borders, with an introduction to Burmese food and a broad cross-section of more traditional Chinese staples.
● Green Elephant Gourmet, 3950 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto | 650-494-7391 | greenelephantgourmet.com | Hours: Lunch: Daily 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner: Sun.-Thu 4:30-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 4:30-9:30 p.m.