Ban Lao Thai report
The PAHGOHALHISOEFTASASFS* recently wended its way to Saint-Laurent borough for dinner at Ban Lao Thai (930 Décarie, a block from the Côte Vertu metro station, 514 747-4805).
The decor’s pretty par for the course: peach-coloured walls decorated with photos, pictures, artwork and artifacts, a television looping Thai music videos, standard-issue chairs and tables. The front is given over to large windows and a terrace, which had escaped my notice on my only other visit (in the dead of winter several years ago; I do remember the walls being turquoise) and wasn’t in use this summer eve due to the rain. Unusually for a family-run southeast Asian establishment, the resto has an open kitchen, though our view was blocked by a divider wall. The entire place, including the bathroom, was spotlessly clean.
The menu’s fairly long -- 87 items -- even if about half is variations on a theme: rice with sautéed chicken (or pork or beef or seafood or fish) in spicy sauce with basil; rice with sautéed chicken (or pork or beef or seafood or fish) and vegetables; rice with chicken (or pork or beef or seafood or fish) in sweet and sour sauce; etc. Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese and Indonesian influences are evident. A little wary of pan-Asianism, we focused on the Laotian section of the menu -- a wise move, it turned out, as those dishes generally proved the most interesting of the evening.
In the order served:
> Pâte de poisson thaïlandaise ($3.50)
We assumed the name was a poor translation and these would be fish cakes. Nope. Fish paste spiced with galangal and lemongrass, formed into three flat pucks and deep-fried. The rubbery texture and lack of crisp crust took some getting used to but the flavour wasn't without appeal. Served with a sweet, tangy red sauce.
> Salade de papaye style laotien (pâte de crabe et crevette) ($8.50)
We told the server we wanted fiery and fiery we got (the only really hot dish of the evening). Otherwise, a disappointment, and an expensive one at that. The papaya was limp, watery and bland, the crab paste AWOL.
> Poisson frit ($10-$16)
Very good. A whole gutted tilapia, scaled but not skinned, deep-fried to a rich bronze. Delectably crisp skin, chewy but not dry flesh. The rolly polly fish heads were said to be overdone, the price to pay for corporal perfection. Served with a salty fish sauce-based dipping sauce and, a recurring theme, sliced cucumbers.
> Saucisses style laotien ($9.50)
Wow. Now we’re talking. Slices of homemade pork sausages not unlike a Toulouse in size and grind, though the similarity stops there. Perfumed with galangal and lemongrass. The filling was moist and succulent, the casing brown, crisp and ungreasy, quite the trick given the links’ fat content. Served on a bed of lettuce and bean sprouts. Far and away the best dish of the evening. Worth a special trip.
> Riz avec poulet farci à la vapeur (feuilles de lime et de basilic, citronelle, oignon, aubergine) ($8.50)
Shredded chicken combined with eggplant, onion and herbs, placed in a bowl and steamed. Unusual texture -- due partly to the cooking method, partly to the eggplant -- and dominated by the keffir lime and lemongrass. Best when first served; didn’t cool well, the texture becoming sodden and the herbs taking on a medicinal edge. A fish version is available. Came with decent steamed rice.
> Nouilles de riz sautées au fruits de mer et légumes ($9.50)
The seafood (squid, a few shrimp and a chunk or three of fish) was meh but the rice noodles and bok choy had great texture and there was lots of umami going on.
> Boeuf séché ($9)
Too thick to be jerky-like. Very dry and chewy. Tasted mainly of beef with perhaps a little oyster or soy sauce and some sugar. Paradoxical: not immediately appealing yet hard to resist.
> Poulet au cari jaune servi sur nouilles ($8.50)
Made with commercial curry powder, we guessed. Tasted more Chinese or Japanese than Thai. A little soupy-gooppy. No *éclat*. A disappointment for those expecting a classic yellow chicken curry but OK in a comfort food kind of way.
> Saucisses style laotien
See above. So good we had to order a second plate.
> Riz sucré et mangue (3 x $2.50)
Slices of perfectly ripe mango and a small, dense log of sticky rice that wasn’t very sweet or coconut milky but was intriguingly flecked with red beans. Moreish.
One chile-adverse diner ordered a main for himself -- a tofu and vegetable stir-fry at $7.50 -- that he said was good.
The damage? Divided by seven, just over $20 a person, including taxes and tip.
While Ban Lao Thai doesn’t deliver the throat-throttling thrills of Tapicoa Thé or the succession of perfection found at Shahi Palace, its homey allure is undeniable. What’s more, it’s a BYO, again with clunky glasses and no ice buckets, not that that interfered with our enjoyment of Bernard-Massard’s 2004 Riesling from Luxembourg’s Mosel valley ($18.15 at the SAQ), a light, refreshing, dry wine filled with lime and mineral and stylistically straddling the border between Alsace and Germany, or the richer and slightly off-drier 2006 Riesling Waipara Valley from New Zealand’s Mount Cass Vineyards ($19.35). Both lent credence to the claim that Riesling is the best wine for Thai-Laotian food.
*Peripatetic ad hoc group of hounds and lurker-hounds in search of “ethnic” food that’s affordable, spicy and served family-style
My personal favorite was the Laotian sausage, this is a totally wonderful sausage that made me completely forget my plan to cut down on charcuterie consumption for health reasons. Why oh why are sausages so yummy?
I also really liked the seafood and rice noodles. I agree the seafood was ho-hum, but the noodles had a perfect texture and homestyle flavour that I really love. But I am a bit of a noodle freak.
I also was oddly enamoured of the boeuf seche, although I think it was not as popular a dish. It is very chewy, and like beef jerky, you have to invest a lot of energy to eat a piece of it (and excuse yourself from conversation for at least 5 minutes). But it has a deep, rich flavour of beef, which I liked. When you are brought up snacking on dried squid, this dish seems more accessible.
Re: PAHGOHALHISOEFTASASFS: there is no secret handshake, this is just a group of friends who like to eat and hang out. That being said, some of us have discussed the possibility of multiple groups of hounds going out and reporting on various restos. There are too many little restos for one person or even one little group to cover.
I for one would like to start trying all the little pho places to see how they compare to my beloved Pho Lien. And it would be fun to try all the chinese restos. Korean places are popping up all over the place, and I haven't even started with all the African places.
But there are certain considerations, such as group size and scheduling. Dining with a group of 6-8 people is ideal. You don't overwhelm the resto, you can try a large number of dishes and conversation is possible with everyone.
It would certainly be possible to set up a monthly PAHGOHALHISOEFTASASFS outing, and let like hounds meet like hounds, who can then set up other outings as they wish. If people are seriously interested, please feel free to email me (see my profile). If there is sufficient interest, we could get something going. Perhaps we could have an organizational meeting at dim sum, which is very forgiving for larger groups.
One item that should be tried that is not on the menu is the fried dry fish. Like the jerky, it is crisp, and hot, perfect on a hot day with some cold beer. Ask Ping for it, she will know exactly what you want.
Hi. If you go to this restaurant I definitely recommend getting the "Laap" or "Larp" (Not sure how they spell it on the menu..) which is a traditional Lao salad made with mint and lots of other fresh herbs and spices. The papaya salad was good, as was the sticky rice. The staff are Lao, from Vientiane, so don't count on getting the best Thai/Vietnamese dishes here. Also a bit disappointing they don't serve Beerlao! Can you get it anywhere in Montreal?