Lao Cafe

Restaurants, Contemporary Asian Covent Garden
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • 4 out of 5 stars
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London’s first proper restaurant serving the food of Laos.

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.

By: Tania Ballantine

Posted:

Venue name: Lao Cafe
Contact:
Address: 60 Chandos Place
London
WC2N 4HG
Transport: Tube: Charing Cross
Price: Dinner for two with drinks and service: around £95.
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To improve this listing email: feedback@timeout.com

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tastemaker

Absolutely delicious food! Must order salt-grilled fish and fermented pork and crispy rice salad.  There are plenty of other salads to choose from too. I have to go back there to eat the other items on the menu. 

tastemaker

Flavoursome food but service needs to get better.

I came to Lao cafe with really high expectations, as I was really excited by Lao cuisine entering the mainstream. For those who haven't tried Lao food before, imagine thai food and vietnamese food had a sweet and spicy love child. The food at Lao cafe didn't disappoint. A word of warning though, the explosion of flavours is not for everyone - we had to drink a big bottle of coke after consuming the large amounts of fish sauce and spices. However, the restaurant is still relatively new, so the front of house was a bit slow, chaotic and rude at times. One table couldn't get the waiter's attention to order their food, and left after 10 minutes. A welcome addition to the London food scene, and hopefully service will get better next time.

tastemaker

Amazing flavours, affordable prices and spice that'll blow your head off!


I am a complete novice when it comes to Laotian (a word I had to Google) cuisine; so when I saw the Lao Cafe pop up in Time Out's magazine, I knew I had to get there ASAP and give it a go. Located on Chandos Place, on the outskirts of Covent Garden, the restaurant is easily accessible from a number of both tube and bus stations.They do not take reservations for groups less than 6 but the space is largeish and split over two floors, so they welcome walk-ins happily. 


We were seated, beer'ed (an alcoholic's take on watered) and run through the menu and how it works immediately; it was explained that Laotian food culture centres around sharing so we were encouraged to get a couple of salads and a couple of mains for a bit of variety. The menu is quite basic, with about 5 food groups and then variations of each underneath, so it was pretty easy to navigate and choose. We ordered a papaya salad, a spicy salad, some grilled pork skewers, a curried mushroom soup AND..some chicken wings just because...well who doesn't love chicken wings!? The flavours were bold, fresh and complementary and were paired well with a couple of bottled Lao beers.


My only criticism is the spice but that was my mistake not theirs; you are given a range of spice to choose from and I mistakenly, and over-confidently, chose a medium level. The spice was not immediate but cumulative, building bite by bite until in the end I was crying and slurring as my tongue went numb. It sounds worse than it was...


All in all, a great new eatery and one that I would not hesitate to recommend. But take heed - should you, like myself, be somewhat spice-shy, express this clearly to your waiting staff so they can have your meal cooked to your liking! I look forward to going back...that is, once I can feel my tongue again!