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Lao Café, Theatreland: Rosa's Thai have a hit with new restaurant

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 24/01/2017 David Ellis

Laotian. The word’s got a nice ring; sounds like it’s on a Tatler list of baby names. Laotian cuisine doesn’t seem very Tatler, but then again, who knows? Maybe the horsey types like fiery sharing plates after a day in the stables.

They probably don’t know if they do, though, because officially Laotian cooking – named for the style of cooking from Laos – isn’t found much around London. In fact, the casual, pop-in-if-you’re-nearby Lao Café claims to be the only spot doing it in town.

It’s hard to know if this is true because plenty of Thai places use Laotian recipes without shouting about it – Rosa’s Thai, who are behind this place, must have done – but hey, it’s a new trend waiting to happen. After all, this café did well enough as a pop-up to go permanent.

The big difference between what’s here and traditional Thai is an absence of coconut. The food has a pleasing dryness, the spices clinging to the meats and rice and the oddities that go into the dishes here. Oddities? The menu includes ant’s eggs: à la mode, at the moment, as insects are in. Besides, it’s a good choice: ants are a damned sight tastier than termites or grasshoppers. London is getting off lightly.

On the menus – seemingly printed using a hand stamp, but you might think it's authentic – it says food is designed for sharing and staff warn things comes whenever they're ready. In reality, dishes arrive swiftly after each other, leaving the table a jigsaw puzzle of plates. I did our waiter a favour by holding firmly onto my wine tumbler at all times. Their signature is Tumm, a busy, moist papaya salad that comes pumped full of chillis. They’ll ask how spicy you want it: take it easy on the bravado. They have dry salads, too, all with toasted rice, whole roasted chillies, mint, fried shallots, spring onions and chilli powder. This kitchen gives things a kick: eating the chargrilled pork neck, the rest overwhelmed it, though the flavours fizz and spit like fire. Try it with the minced duck – there’s also boiled liver but, Christ, no thanks.

Poussin wins for the dish of the night: it’s chucked on the grill and that’s about it, and comes perfectly juicy. The menu says dishes like these are found on every street corner on Laos: I urge Sadiq Khan to consider a mandatory copycat approach here. The beef is less impressive: cooked well, all blackened just so on the outside and pink right through the middle, but tender it was not. Just a bad piece? Hopefully.

Rice is, well, you know, rice, so it’s difficult exactly to recommend it: nevertheless, the grilled rice is toasty on the outside and sticky on the inside, a foil and ally against the oils and spices in the food and delicious in its own right. Order it, but don’t talk about it (talking about rice can’t be healthy, surely? Send help).

Wine is cheapish and does the job, but Lao Café a lager place. You’re coming here because it’s central, cheap, and interesting. The staff are friendly and the service nippy: tables seem to come and go quickly, demolishing vibrant piles of plates and heading off out again. There are two floors, both simple and sparse. Come summer, expect to see them packed full of regulars having beer and bugs and thoroughly enjoying themselves.

Lao Café: The Lowdown

Final flavour: Thai, except it’s Laotian: plates with plenty of heat, moist meats and temptation to snack on and on and on.

At what cost? Plates come in different – though not that different – sizes, and most cost around £8 – £13. Wine £19 – £27. Rice around £3.

Visit if you like:Rosa’s Thai Cafe (obviously), Som Saa, Smoking Goat

Find it: 60 Chandos Place, WC2N 4HG, rosasthaicafe.com

Visit standard.co.uk/restaurants for the latest news and reviews from London’s food scene.

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