‘Authentic’ is overused on London’s restaurant scene, but Saiphin Moore has managed to do the word justice with her traditional Laotian cooking in newly opened Covent Garden restaurant Lao Café. After successfully running seven branches of cool and casual Thai restaurant Rosa’s, Saiphin’s mission is to bring traditional home cooking from her original Laotian roots to Londoners. After a tip from friend and Bangkok-based Thai food expert Chris Wotton as “the best Lao and Northern Thai food outside of Thailand”, we headed to this little café just off Leicester Square.
The space is cosy with plenty of authentic Laotian touches that Saiphin and her husband Alex have personally sourced from their travels. Tiles that cover the open kitchen area come from the couple’s favourite hotel in Laos, while black and white photographs portray life in Saiphin’s family hometown of Luang Prabang. A local photographer captures a wrinkled old face smoking a pipe and young boys as they throw tyres in the air in the countryside. London-based graffiti artist, Mr Cenz, was commissioned to bring one of the photographs to life in a bold and loud mural painting of a laughing Laotian woman that covers the entirety of one of the walls.
Lao Café serves the food that the people of Laos and Northern Thailand pick up from street food stalls and cook in their homes every day – fiery fresh salads, spicy hot pots, and skewers of grilled marinated meats.
Lao style is all about sharing, so order a couple of salads and mains to share (two salads and two main dishes with a side of rice is enough for two). The menu is divided into well sign-posted sections, the first three dedicated to Laos’ punchy salads – raw papaya ‘tumm’ salads smashed about in a pestle and mortar, drier-textured laabs, and spicy ‘soop’ salads that combine Laos’ four inherent flavours; salty fish sauce, sweet palm sugar, sour lime juice and spicy chillies.
Saiphin’s uncle’s duck laab had a sensational balance of textures (melting minced duck, crisp fried shallots, crunchy toasted rice and plenty of chillies, mint and spring onions), while fine matchsticks of papaya, green mango and cucumber were shaken up with herbs, tiny crisp-dried shrimp and peanuts to add extra crunch in the Thai-style tumm salad. We’ve been told that the tum taad papaya tray salad for two is epic, and the best combination of pickled clams, salted eggs, anchovies and papaya salad mix outside of Laos and Northern Thailand.
Main dishes come next, with an extensive selection of ‘jee’ (grilled marinated meats) that are found on every street corner of Laos – think char-grilled pork skewers, fermented Lao sausage and char-grilled poussin. A menu must-order was the show-stopping whole fish, fragrant from its lemongrass stuffing and extra-soft from the salt crust in which it was grilled. Be prepared to get stuck in – we wrapped pieces of fish in salad leaves with springy rice noodles, Thai basil and zingy herb and aubergine dip.
Next, we scraped sticky brown rice from a delicate banana leaf parcel to add to tom zap gadook moo, a sour galangal and lemongrass soup served in a terracotta pot with tender pork ribs. These hot pots, known as mor fai (fire pot), are served in Lao homes from a large communal pot that helps keep the room warm. Next time we’d like to try an ‘om’ curry. Drier than Thailand’s coconut curries, these dishes are packed with tastebud-tingling herbs and spices.
Cool down your burning mouth with an unusually pink coloured Thai tea ice cream. It had a faint taste of matcha and was drizzled with evaporated milk and peanuts, served street food-style on a bread roll.
Drinks? There are plenty of teas, from green and lemongrass, to sun-dried ‘pink’ tea. There’s a short wine list, but we suggest sticking with a beer to go with the spicy menu – Lao beer is made using Jasmine rice, or go for Thailand’s favourite beer, Singha.
Lao Café remains true to tradition – food is served extra hot by default, so give the waiter a heads up if you want to tone down the chilli. However we recommend taking it as it comes, if you can handle it, as Saiphin Moore has really cracked authentic cooking from this country that’s so frequently overshadowed by the dishes of neighbouring Thailand.
Written by Alex Crossley
First published February 2017