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Unforgettable and well worth the wait

In a modern, informal space, Lao Café cooks up authentic dishes to blow your socks off

26 October, 2017 — By Tom Moggach

Mushroom curry comes with ants’ eggs as an optional extra

FOR the hardcore food geek, author Alan Davidson was a legend in his time. His epic book The Oxford Companion to Food details almost every known ingredient from A-Z. But some of his other titles, such as Fish and Fish Dishes of Laos were somewhat more obscure.

More than 40 years after its publication, the exotic food of Laos has finally hit London.

Lao Café, a five-minute walk from Trafalgar Square, cooks up authentic dishes from this landlocked country. Laos shares a border with Thailand and Vietnam but the food has a character of its own.

Features include the absence of coconut milk and a fondness for fresh water fish.

If you like your food spicy, a meal at Lao Café will blow your socks off. As one online review puts it, this is not “Thai or Lao-lite food”. It’s the real deal – fiery and fascinating.

Our meal was an experience I’m not likely to forget.

The restaurant only accepts bookings for large groups, so at peak times there’s the possibility that you may need to wait for a table.

You walk into a modern, informal space set over two floors. Aim for a table on the ground floor, beneath the vivid mural that runs along one wall and the stylish tangle of bare bulb ceiling lights.

On our visit, most other diners were Asian, which boded well for the meal ahead.

I started with fried insects, a bar snack – this type of sustainable protein is the future, after all. On close inspection, the tiny critters looked like grasshoppers and were perfectly palatable, although I would have preferred them a touch more crispy.

Other unusual ingredients include fermented sausages, pickled crab and ants’ eggs – an optional extra on their mixed mushroom curry.

Order a “mor fai” hot pot, served in a rustic clay bowl. These soups are stunningly aromatic – stuffed with herbs, galangal and other titbits, then chicken and toasted black sesame seeds or cleavered chunks of pork rib.

The heat is sensational, too – teetering at the limit of what I consider pleasurable. So specify the amount of heat you enjoy when you place your order.

The papaya salads are the perfect antidote. Traditionally made in a wooden pestle and mortar, these are cooling, sweet and sour and served with extras such as anchovies, pickled clams or salted eggs.

The dry “laab” salads are divine, too: plates of crunchy toasted rice with fried shallots, spring onions, whole roasted chillies, mint and topped with extras such as minced duck.

We also shared a whole fried seabass. You pick and mix with an aubergine dip, vermicelli noodles and a lavish pile of fresh herbs such as dill and special Laotian coriander.

Prices are decent at Lao Café – around £8-13 for most dishes, which are designed to share.

It’s taken four decades to taste the food that writer Alan Davidson described in such loving detail. But it was well worth the wait.

Lao Café
60 Chandos Place, WC2N
020 3740 4748
www.laocafe.co.uk
Instagram: @laocafelondon

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