At The Dutchess, one of Ojai, California’s newest restaurants, Burmese food with a West Coast flair from chef Saw Naing takes center stage with dishes like fragrant lamb biryani, tender tandoori chicken, and freshly baked naan.
Naing arrived in America in 2007 dreaming of life as a musician. To support himself, he began working in restaurants, with early stints at sandwich shops and burger joints. He eventually decided to attend culinary school and, upon graduating, landed in the kitchen of Thomas Keller’s Bouchon. He later joined Tallula’s, working first as a sous chef and then executive chef. The restaurant encouraged him to hold a pop-up dinner with his mother, the two serving an array of family-favorite Burmese dishes Naing had grown up eating. After that event’s success, Rustic Canyon owners Zoe Nathan and Josh Loeb offered Naing partnership in a new restaurant venture, with free rein to develop his own menu for The Dutchess. It would be a place where he could express his identity as a Burmese American chef and serve dishes inspired by his Rangoon upbringing.
When Naing was crafting the menu, he knew the classic and beloved Burmese tea leaf salad deserved a spot on the list—and he would give it a special treatment, using a mix of locally sourced ingredients and others received from thousands of miles away. “[The tea leaves are] seasonally picked from the mountains of Myanmar,” he explains. “I have a company that gets the tea from there, then we ferment it in-house for a whole month.” The earthy, tangy leaves are chopped up and mixed with shredded cabbage and lettuce, then topped with a medley of crispy bits including sesame seeds, peanuts, fried shallots, and garlic. Locally grown seasonal vegetables also give the dish an unexpected twist; for example, Naing often includes radishes and turnips for added texture. According to Naing, nothing goes to waste, as the leftover tea oil from steeping the leaves is used as a finishing drizzle on other dishes.
Another dish that’s meant to be shared by the whole table is the roasted tandoori chicken, which arrives on a bed of cumin-spiced rice in a terra cotta bowl, alongside pickled shallots and charred green onions. Naing’s secret weapon? A high-heat tandoor clay oven gives the tender, yogurt-marinated chicken its distinct smoky flavor.
As much as Naing loves both the tea leaf salad and tandoori chicken, he refers to the biryani as his signature dish. His unique take consists of flaky golden pastry formed over a filling of delicately spiced basmati rice with yogurt-marinated lamb. Capturing all the bold flavors and varied textures in this dish is particularly important to Naing because of how close the meal is to his heart. “Biriyani is the dish I eat everyday, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. My whole childhood, that's all I ate,” he says. “I had to practice biryani for years. You can ask my wife. She knows how much I cook biryani all the time. I fed every neighbor, dentist, the people that I love.”
Naing notes that, in Burma and India, biryani is traditionally prepared by layering rice and other ingredients in a pot, putting on the lid and sealing it with dough, then cooking the entire dish over coals. Traditionally, the dough doesn’t have to be eaten, but at The Dutchess, Naing has incorporated that component into the final presentation and enjoyment of the dish. His version lets diners break through buttery layers of pastry, so they can experience the concentrated fragrance that comes billowing out. “When the servers walk, I don't want the aromatics to be lost in the hallway. I don't want the spices to disappear. That's why I cover it with the puff pastry. When you break into it, the steam comes out and into your face,” he explains.
For Naing, whose paternal ancestry is Burmese and whose maternal grandmother is Indian and Muslim, the menu at The Dutchess encapsulates the multicultural diet he grew up enjoying. “The menu is based on my life story, my memory of street food. I had this kind of food on the streets of Burma,” says Naing. “Growing up, I couldn’t eat pork, and my dad's side [of the family] couldn’t eat cow. That's why I have chicken hearts and gizzards on the menu—these are parts of the meat I would eat.”
When their meal is winding down, diners at The Dutchess can cap off their dinner with inventive desserts by pastry chef Kelsey Brito (formerly of bakery and pizzeria Milo+Olive), who serves creations like passion fruit lassi pie and rose geranium kulfi that feature Burmese- and Indian-inspired flavor profiles.
The latest restaurant addition to the Rustic Canyon family, a widely celebrated collective of dining destinations, The Dutchess is an ideal weekend destination for Angelenos—about a 90-minute drive from the city. During the day, baker Kate Pepper (formerly of Kate's Bread) showcases pastries and freshly baked loaves, before chef Naing takes over and fills the room with Burmese aromas during the evenings. With a roaring fireplace, eclectic vintage decor, and even a pool table, the restaurant invites both locals and out-of-towners to come together and stay a while.