Review: Lao Cafe, Covent Garden

Lao Café - Feast

The distinctive cuisine of Thailand’s quieter cousin Laos is making waves in London’s Covent Garden. Cathy Howes pulls up a chair for Southeast Asia’s rising new star 

It’s not often the diners at the next table comprise the Mayor of Bangkok and his retinue, but such is the reputation of Lao Café, that the visiting dignitaries had heard of it thousands of miles away.

As the name suggests, the cuisine hails from Laos. As far as founder and executive chef Saiphin Moore is aware, it’s the only Laotian restaurant in London, possibly the UK, and is just coming up to its first anniversary in December.

Saiphin was born in Thailand after her ancestors migrated from the Laos and Luang Prabang area, but grew up on Laotian cuisine, learning  – literally – at her grandmother’s knee from the age of five or six.

Lao Cafe review

The dishes are distinct for several reasons, not least that as a landlocked country, Laotian cuisine has no repertoire of seafood, although river fish is a common staple. They tend not to cook with coconut (apart from flavouring ice cream) and oil is used sparingly, making dishes succulent without being greasy.

Nibbles to start are called Khan Tan (£6.50), rice crackers with minced pork and chilli dip that Saiphin remembers as a childhood snack made from refried leftover rice. Again crisp not greasy and a great palate livener.

After that the plates come thick and fast, buffet-style. There’s an intensely flavoured Tom Zaap Gai Gnar Dum (£13), free-range chicken soup and toasted black sesame – a rollcall of ingredients that play on the tongue from sharp, sour and salty, and all with plenty of heat.

Lao Cafe review

Another traditional dish is Kai Khem (£9.50), a papaya salad with salted eggs, followed by Makhuer Yao, char-grilled aubergine (£8) and a fresh vegetable and herb curry, Om He’s Bai Ya Nang  (£11, add £2 for traditional topping ants’ eggs!).

But the highlight is Mohk Pla (£9.50), a fragrant herbal curry of white river fish steam in a banana leaf that you could happily eat all day long. Everything is accompanied by white or grilled sticky rice served in banana leaves.

Lao Cafe review

Lao Café is small and intimate – tables are close together – and busy with visitors from southeast Asia and locals alike. Saiphin weaves between the tables, checking everyone is happy, making menu suggestions and treating everyone like they are part of her family – the kind of care that is obvious in the way she cooks.

Where to find it: 60 Chandos Place, London WC2

Share Button