On the flavour wheel of the world, Laotian food sits somewhere between northern Thai and Vietnamese. As for Lao Café, it’s the kind of place where an optional protein supplement (£2) is a notch up from chicken or prawns: it’s ant eggs. Think you’re an adventurous diner? Come right in.
It first started life as a pop-up. Of course it did. You don’t chuck a load of ant eggs at people without road-testing their reaction first. Happily, chef and co-founder Saiphin Moore is an old hand at the restaurant game, having co-founded Rosa’s Thai Café (which, when it first launched, was a breath of fresh air). The vibe is nicely funky: backpacker-café-meets-urban-chic. Giant caged lights in clusters, rough wood, pretty tiles, plus a low throb of beats in the background. It’s a trip down nostalgia lane for anyone that’s done southeast Asia on a shoestring, but with nicer loos and no sheepish calls home to ask for more money. Only the too-bright lighting takes it too far: someone needs to pop down to B&Q for a dimmer switch.
The clued-up staff are eager to please, so ask them for advice, based on your level of culinary chutzpah. If you’re a gung-ho, pursuit-of-bragging-rights kind of a human, say so. Then brace yourself. Otherwise, go for something mainstream, like the kickass whole fish, deep-fried and served with a traditional laab (dry salad mix) of toasted rice and fresh herbs. The crunchy skin gives way to moist, delicate flesh; the salad is beautifully fragrant: slivers of scallion, red onion and lemongrass colliding with lime leaves and coriander. There’s a subtle sweetness that then gives way to tingling notes of sour, salt and heat. It’s ace.
Or a ‘tumm’ – a papaya salad much like a Thai som tam – ranging from the full-on sensory assault of the ‘tum lao’ (if you order this, don’t say I didn’t warn you) to the more effortlessly crowd-pleasing ‘khai khem’, which comes with chunks of moreish salted egg. Or the makhuer yao, a terrific sweet-sour-spicy salad with chargrilled aubergine. Desserts are simple, but surprisingly excellent: the smooth, intense green tea ice cream was one of the best I’d had in ages.
And finally: those ant eggs. They can be added to the om hed bai ya nang: a thin, oddly pungent mushroom broth. Tiny, pearlescent little grubs, like fatted grains of rice, they taste of very little, but do pleasingly go pop in your mouth. And, as our waiter encouragingly noted, ‘they’re actually a superfood’. Traditional Laotian cooking may be many things, but boring, it is not.