Thursday, May 31, 2012

chewing over lao cuisine

Arthouse Café is a very famous, highly recommended restaurant in Luang Prabang. has ranked it second out of 73, and nobody seems to have anything bad to say about it.

But I hadn't read any of those reviews when I decided that we should try out Arthouse Café. We were just meandering along in the Nam Khan side of town when I saw it. It looked cozy and welcoming from the outside...

And the inside was not too shabby, either. The air-conditioned dining room on the ground floor was charming. The shiny wooden floors, the retro cane furniture, the French doors and lots of natural light-- I liked this place a lot.

But mostly I was attracted to the lunch special. Fried rice and a fruit shake for only 25,000 kip (a little over US$3)! That was a very good deal-- probably the best in Luang Prabang.

While waiting for our food, I checked out the art in the Arthouse. The owner-- I think he's Canadian-- has built up quite a collection. Besides the many, many paintings and photographs on the walls, there were also a few sculptures and some antique furniture scattered about.

Everyone gravitates towards the renowned Red Dao Girl by Vietnamese artist Nguyen Vaw Cuong. It's Arthouse Café's default logo.

I preferred this oil painting with the pastel colors. I think it's called Contemplation, but I'm not sure. There's not a lot of information about this piece or the artist in "Arthouse Art, Architecture and Anecdotes", a sort of primer written by the owners.

I was especially impressed by the brushwork. The painter employed a different technique for each color on the canvas, resulting in a jumble of textures. It made me want to touch it.

Anyway, the food. We took advantage of the pleasant weather and asked to be served outdoors on the patio facing the street. Here's the fried rice with pork, served with soy sauce and sliced chili peppers on the side, Lao-style. (In Thailand, it's usually fish sauce with chili.)

I ordered a Luang Prabang salad, half portion. Arthouse Café's version had lettuce, watercress, mint, tomato, onion, peanuts and hard-boiled eggs. At 14,000 kip (US$1.75), this was actually cheaper than the one I had the previous day which didn't have the all-important watercress.

The sweetish French-influenced dressing was served on the side, with a piece of bread. The egg yolks were the main component of the dressing, hence the naked-looking egg whites on top of the greens. The cooked yolks were blended with lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, garlic and spring onion-- totally addictive!

On the left of the photo is the fresh lychee shake that came with the fried rice. Although the lychee was a refreshing novelty, the shake itself was a little too milky. Perhaps we should have gone with just a glass of juice. Or a bottle of fabulous Beerlao. (More about Beerlao later.)

I wanted to try another native dish, so I ordered the laap or larb which is the national dish of Laos. The one I got was minced chicken-- cooked, not raw-- tossed with mint, bean sprouts, spring onion, fish sauce, lime juice and a hint of chili. Reasonably priced at 35,000 kip (US$4.40).

It started to rain, so we moved upstairs to the balcony and had some coffee made with local Arabica beans. A huge mug and unlimited refills for 10,000 kip (US$1.25)! Although Lao coffee is not as strong as Vietnamese or as fragrant as Filipino Barako, it's pretty decent. Too bad they closed at 5PM. I would have lingered for another hour or two.

Verdict: Arthouse Café is a concept restaurant. It's different from all the other establishments in Luang Prabang and it could have come across as pretentious or ridiculous, but thank gad, it's not. I am happy to report that it's a solid restaurant serving earnest food in hearty serving sizes at popular prices. Yez, it's definitely value for money. Plus it's a delightful hangout.

I wish I could say that the food was delicious, but having spent two weeks in Thailand before going to Laos, my taste buds were used to being wowed. (It's exactly what happened to me last year when I went to Vietnam and Cambodia. Cambodian cuisine paled in comparison to the more flamboyant and savory Vietnamese.) While noshing in Luang Prabang, I couldn't help but compare the local dishes to the more flavorful offerings across the border.

It is only in retrospect that I can appreciate the simplicity, freshness and lightness of Lao cuisine. What I originally thought of as bland and somewhat boring is actually... well, still kind of bland. But most definitely not boring at all! Lao dishes have a distinctive character and the people should do their best to preserve and promote their culinary heritage. Kudos to Arthouse Café for its efforts towards this end.

Sure, there some cooking schools in Luang Prabang. And there are a few restaurants, like Les 3 Nagas, that are trying to elevate Lao cuisine by serving it in a fine dining setting. But why is it that the menu of every mid-range or cheap eatery that I perused had five pages of Thai dishes, three pages of Western dishes and only one page of Lao dishes? I was baffled to see that the Lao dishes cost the most, too.

I adored the Luang Prabang salad. I could have eaten it everyday. And the laap with all its permutations (chicken, beef, pork, duck, turkey, fish, raw, cooked), every other day.

But the fried rice? It was just an anemic interpretation of the Thai khao pad.

Go to Luang Prabang and eat at Arthouse Café. For me, it's one of the best places to try Lao food.

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