A review of Lao Café, London

It’s cute. Pale blue, with a stripped-down industrial-chic interior, a colourful mural, wooden benches in shades of brown and pastels. I first came across it in a review in Good Food magazine, which praised it for its authenticity, the punch of all things spicy and fermented, the use of ingredients like ant eggs and bugs, which may put off some eaters. To me, it’s just one of my favourite places in London.

The name is Lao Café and the cuisine is Laotian, which is a word I can genuinely never pronounce. Think Thai, but somehow even punchier; there are papaya salads, crispy rice salads, grilled meat skewers. Salt-baked or deep fried whole fish that look like prehistoric creatures. Sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves. And yes, if you wish, you can have some ant eggs on your curry.

I’ve been to Lao Café in all seasons. I’ve sipped on brightly hued, sickly sweet pink ice tea during a heatwave; lost all feeling in my mouth after ordering a salted egg  salad “medium hot”; ladled warm, cloudy sour soup in a tiny china bowl while the last of the London snow was slowly turning muddy and brown.

Because it’s a cuisine that’s designed for sharing, it’s perfect for a small group of people.

IMG_1068

Parts of the menu changes regularly, but if you can get salt-baked fish, order it: wonderfully delicate steamed flesh, with an addictive fermented aubergine sauce and white vermicelli to accompany it. The salads, tart with lime, sweet with palm sugar and savoury with fish sauce, come with a variety of accompaniments and are light and hearty, satisfying and fresh at the same time.

IMG_1060

While I have loved almost every item I have ever had, I have favourites. The simple, yet ingenious pork skewers, so savoury their flavour is reminiscent of Italian sausage, tender under a caramelised exterior; and the stir fried noodles, a generous pile of thin and sticky rice noodles with chunks of fried eggs and slivers of grilled pork, of which I could eat entire plates to myself.

DSCF0435

DSCF0438

On a recent visit, the offer of a pot of soup was too enticing to pass. The hot pot comes to the table in a very theatrical clay pot, to be carefully ladled into delicate china bowls. We went for chicken and black sesame and it was rustic, cloudy, chock-full of aromatics, with fat collecting in droplets on the surface. A savoury, sour, just-spicy liquor with bits of meat you had to work for, bones and all, so nourishing and warming it put us in a sleepy daze.

If you, like me, believe that ice cream is the only appropriate way to end a meal, they have homemade ice cream in three flavours: coconut, matcha and Thai milk tea.
I have of course never attempted to order anything but Thai milk tea because where else can you get it? It has a subtle roast flavour from the tea, and it’s as creamy and sweet as, well, Thai milk tea. If you have inadvertently asked for any of your dishes to be spicy, despite the alarmed look of the waitress who probably warned you that it would be “Thai spicy, not English spicy”, the ice cream will be all the more welcome.

IMG_1070

Lao Café
60 Chandos Place, WC2N 4HG
London

IMG_1074

(If you wondered about the pink ice tea I mentioned at the beginning, here it is in its fuchsia glory. It tastes like melted bubblegum.)

Advertisements

A review of Hangmee, Berlin

If there is one thing Berlin has that London so miserably lacks is space. Berlin seems to have buckets of space. Its peaceful, quiet Allees, lined by rows of trees, are so spacious that if you were to open your arms, as if to hug an imaginary friend, you probably would not cause an accident that would later be featured on BBC News. And I believe that all this space, the simple ability to walk from A to B without having to elbow and huff and puff and tut, makes everyone just so much more relaxed.

As I sat in what my friend kept referring to as “the yellow restaurant” (it is indeed quite yellow), I was trying to grasp the essence of these Berlin restaurants – relaxed, buzzy, cool, non-pretentious, sleek but never too sleek – and I decided that space played an important role in it. Now, I love the dinky Soho spots with wonky tables and a handwritten menu that is just a list of ingredients, but there is just something about a spacious restaurant, filled enough for the atmosphere to be warm but not so much to have a queue outside.

Hangmee is all primary colours, yellow walls with red accents, neon-signs like those on the streets of Thailand, big murals of food on the walls. Its fun decor very carefully treads the line between cool and corny, but there is simplicity to a very extensive menu of, well, “Thai-Laotian tapas”.

Processed with VSCO with s3 preset

Here is where I stand on the “everything-turn-tapas” trend. I love the idea of being able to try more by having smaller portions. I don’t love it as much when it becomes an excuse to overcharge for tiny portions on immaculate plates that you couldn’t share even if you wanted to (erm, shall I cut this asparagus in two?). Hangmee does tapas so, so, right. The portions are generous and come on a rotating dish to ensure that no one hoards any of the food (you will try).

IMG_8583

We chose a long list of dishes and every single one of them was excellent. There were supple bites of chicken wrapped in aromatic pandan leaves and their thick, addictive sauce; bright papaya salad with savoury dried shrimps; a mind-blowing dipping sauce with mince and lightly steamed, thin slices of broccoli and cabbage; crispy slices of juicy chicken bathed in a mild curry, chewy rice noodles stir-fried with egg and vegetables; pink, thick-skinned juicy dumplings with a creamy beef filling and a celery kick. Everything was bright, aromatic, filling, in generous portions to be scooped up with copious amounts of rice. The sort of tapas you can actually share – although you won’t want to.

 

Hangmee

Boxhagener Str. 108, Friedrichshain

Berlin