Name: Laos Café - A Pop-Up By Saiphin (Rosa’s Thai Café)
Where: 25 Gillingham Street, London SW1V 1HN, http://rosasthaicafe.com/
Cost: Average cost is £15 to £20 per person (not including drinks). Small plates are priced from £5 to £7, main dishes for sharing cost from £6 to £15, sides of noodles or rice cost £3. The drinks menu is small, and includes Thai Chang Beer at £4 per bottle, and the Spanish house red and white wines at £18 per bottle.
About: Laos is very close to my heart as I have had a couple of wonderful visits to the country recently, you can read more about the gorgeous Luang Prabang (former royal cpaital) here and here and also the current modern capital Vientiane here. One of my favourite restaurants in Paris, Lao Lane Xang, is Laotian (read about it here), and so I was thrilled to hear of the opening of the Laos Café in London and hurried along to give it a try during its short life.
This Laotian pop-up in Victoria, a 5 minute walk from the train station, is the brainchild of Saiphin Moore, Head Chef and co-founder of the Rosa's Thai Café group. This is the only restaurant in London serving Laotian food and it’s surprising that none has opened until now. The food of Laos is varied and delicious, sharing many similarities with Thailand’s northern region of Issan (which has over the centuries been part of both Thailand and Laos), but it is also distinct for its own local produce and as a former French colony, for influences from French cuisine.
|The small open-plan kitchen at Laos Cafe Pop-up|
Taking up temporary residence in what will become the 7th Rosa's Thai Café, the pop-up will run until the end of February 2016, seating 25 people in a simply furnished but comfortable café.
The menu is designed for sharing, and features a total of 18 dishes from the land-locked country that once formed part of French Indochina. Nearly all the food is prepared on charcoal in the minute kitchen.
What We Ate: We ordered a selection of 5 small plates and main courses to share, and dishes were brought to our table as soon as they were ready in no particular order.
We kicked off with a gorgeous chargrilled seabass (£15), stuffed with lemon grass and served whole and skin-on. There was a coating of sea salt over the skin making it deliciously salty and crisp. The fish was accompanied by a selection of fresh green herbs including basil, mint and dill, as well as noodles and a bowl of pounded spicy grilled aubergine with garlic, red onion, nam pla and chilli.
We ate this by wrapping the fish up with noodles, herbs and the aubergine sauce in a lettuce leaf, making a great, spicy and refreshing start to our meal. This was the star dish of our meal and great value at £15.
Next was the spicy grilled pork salad (£8) served with tender slices of pork, red onion, dried red chillies, toasted rice and herbs including mint, basil, dill, coriander and lettuce leaves. This packed quite a punch of chilli heat, balanced by the refreshing herbs and zingy dressing. I loved the toasted rice powder in the dish for both its flavour and added texture. A delicious dish I would love to try again.
The laab or laap had to be ordered - this is a traditional salad of minced pork, poultry and sometimes fish, served raw or cooked and highly seasoned – it is incredibly refreshing and one of the national dishes of Laos. The Laos Café’s duck laab version (£8) was served as is traditional at room temperature (but not raw), with tender grilled duck morsels, red onion, dried red chillies, toasted rice and mixed green herbs. We liked this dish, though sadly the flavour profile was very similar to the pork salad we had just eaten – had I been informed of this when ordering I would have chosen something else.
The seafood salad & glass noodles (£10) had many ingredients including prawns, squid, red onion, spring onion, Chinese celery, cherry tomato, fresh red chilli, coriander and dill but oddly no glass noodles! The seafood was lightly poached, and very tender, enlivened by a zingy lime, nam pla and chilli dressing and the accompanying herbs.
The papaya salad Laos style, known as Som Tum (£11.50) was similar in style to the Thai version (shredded green papaya, green beans, crushed tomatoes, peanuts and nam pla) except that it contained pounded Laotian anchovies and whole small crabs which had been roughly crushed. In my opinion this was the only downer of our meal – authentic though it may have been, my mouth got full of tiny, unpalatable crab shells with each spoonful making it difficult to eat. I was looking forward to crab when ordering this salad, but not its shell!
To accompany our meal, we shared two portions of white and brown sticky rice (£3 each), which were beautifully presented in banana leaves.
We shared 5 dishes and 2 portions of rice – in retrospect 4 dishes would have been enough as they were generously sized. This means that a meal at Laos Café costs around £15 to £20 a head (not including drinks), which in my opinion is excellent value. This is a unique opportunity to taste good and authentic Laotian cooking in London without breaking the bank.
This intriguing little Laotian café is only open until the end of February 2016, after which it will be refurbished as another branch of Rosa's Thai Café. If you haven't tried the food of Laos before, or even if you have, hasten over to Victoria to sample the food of Laos Café before it turns Thai. Rumour has it that if there is sufficient demand, Saiphin may open a permanent Laotian restaurant in Shoreditch! So help me in this quest.
What We Drank: We had a glass of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc (£6.60) and a bottle of Chang beer (£4). We were served plenty of tap water on request.
Likes: The seabass was spectacularly good as was the grilled pork salad. Friendly service.
Dislikes: The drinks menu is limited and it is unfortunate considering this is a pop-up that BYO is not available.
Verdict: The Food at Laos Café Pop-up is deliciously zingy, spicy and authentic. It is well-priced too though sadly only available until the end of February 2016. Recommended.