A little Laotian in London – Lao Cafe:
Laos wraps itself like a scarf around Thailand. A landlocked country, a narrow strip bordering on Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, Cambodia and China, I had no idea what to expect from Lao Café, a relatively new restaurant and the only place in London to serve Laotian food. The country is landlocked so there are no coconut trees, meaning that coconut milk, a staple of traditional Thai food, is not used in local recipes. There’s also a limited amount of fish. Instead you’ll find fresh local ingredients including ants’ eggs, frogs, bugs and banana flowers. Even the bar snacks include ‘crispy fried bugs of the day’ along with deep fried chicken wings and beef jerky…
Since Rosa’s Thai Cafe has an excellent reputation and the pop-ups for Lao Cafe have been a resounding success, I was keen to find out more.
I turned up to find a packed cafe with that warm, comfortable feel that comes from somewhere everyone is happily focussed on filling their bellies. Saiphin Moore the founder and head chef from Rosa’s grew up in northern Thailand, but her family are originally from Laos so this is a very personal project for her, to showcase the traditional foods and cooking methods that she grew up with.
So, what to order? Life was made a little easier because I was in the company of pescatarian The-Hedonist. So, some of the delicious sounding but very carnivorous dishes were off limits and in order to try one of the grill dishes we shared Pla Pao Gluer – a salt grilled whole fish served with aubergine dip, vermicelli noodles and a large bunch of fresh herbs. Absolutely no regrets about that one, the fish was delicious with the spicy chilli infused aubergine dip and a bunch of fragrant soft herbs including coriander and mint.
We’d ordered the Tum Puu – a papaya salad with pickled crabs and asked for it to be served spicy. It managed to be ultra fresh in the mouth with a sweet-sour taste complemented by the tiny crunchy pickled crabs that we picked up and chewed.
Char-grilled Aubergine was another hit – a herb infused plate of tender, slightly bitter aubergine with more of that hot and spicy sour taste.
My favourite dish of the evening was one that I got all to myself and which I initially ordered to showcase the presentation. Mor Fai are Laotian hotpots and Lao Cafe has two offerings – a chicken and toasted black sesame dish, Tom Zaap Gai Gnar Dum and spicy sour pork ribs, Tom Zaap Gadook Moo. My conservative order of chicken was down to sometimes finding pork ribs too fatty. And, here, with a pescatarian companion, I’d have had no redress other than to leave the food. Chicken by comparison, is a safe option.
What arrived was a very spicy sour soup served over a little burner with plenty of chunks of chicken, laced with coriander. Almost a cross between a soup and a stew, it was utterly delicious and I managed to eat the lot!
We also had a portion of Khao Jee – a curious grilled sticky rice with a crunchy caramelised crust, a kind of Laotian upside-down paella;)
Then, as if that wasn’t enough, there was ice cream. Coconut for him and green tea for me, both served with crunchy peanuts. Very delicious and a great way to send the meal.
We’d enjoyed a crisp minerally Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand with the meal. Priced at £24.50, a good value option that worked well with the spicy-sour food. The drinks list is short, but carefully planned to complement the food and provide plenty of options. I was curious about the iced pink tea and next time I will experiment a bit more.
To sum up, I loved what I ate, I loved the atmosphere and I’d love to go back. I could easily develop a craving for the Tom Zaap Gai Gnar Dum Mor Fai – the chicken hot pot. And, I’m clearly not alone – the restaurant was packed to the brim with passing trade being turned away on a Wednesday night.
60 Chandos Pl,
London WC2N 4HG