This Richmond Thai restaurant aims to be the best in North America
Baan Lao chef trained under two top Thai chefs in her home country.
Mia Stainsby Vancouver Sun and Province
Publishing date: Apr 07, 2021
The mission? Not impossible. It’s to be the best Thai restaurant in North America. “Not in Canada, in North America,” says John Phanthoupheng, co-owner of Baan Lao Fine Thai Cuisine in Steveston. In North America.
It depends on what you want of Thai food. Baan Lao is the kind of place Michelin inspectors love to anoint with stars. I don’t know of any other Thai restaurant in North America where the food is styled, ready for said inspectors should they one day stumble upon a country called Canada.
At highly regarded Thai restaurants such as Ugly Baby in New York or Kin Khao in San Francisco, the food is served family style, certainly not perfectly arranged by tweezer. I’ve visited the celebrated Pok Pok in Portland and Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas a couple of times, drooling over the exciting, sometimes explosive flavours that take deep dives into Thai cuisine. Ditto at Vancouver’s Maenam restaurant. But you don’t see dishes making a diva entrance in an ethereal swirl of dry ice like at Baan Lao, or white-gloved servers, or tom yum soup broth suctioning its way through herbs in a siphon coffee maker. Or cutlery and dishes like those used by the Thai royal family. Or a table-side welcome by a Thai dancer, fingers curled in balletic backbends.
As I say, it depends what you are looking for in a dining experience. Some may be quite happy with a more casual, less-expensive “best” Thai restaurant.
Co-owner and chef Nutcha Phanthoupheng made a career pivot from nurse and cancer researcher in Thailand, where chefs don’t have career cachet. Upon marrying John and moving to Vancouver, her passion for cooking took over and she returned to Thailand for culinary training. She worked at a two Michelin star restaurant under a Thai Iron Chef, and at a oneMichelin star restaurant under a former chef for the Thai royal family. She trained further with the top food stylist in the country and attained a food carving certification.
It’s all on display at Baan Lao, which means “Our home.” It opened in February serving a nine-course prix fixe dinner menu at an haute $190 per person, with an option of another $70 for wine pairings or $40 for tea pairings. A tough sell during a pandemic, you’d think, but no, they were greeted with a whole lotta love. They had planned to launch lunch, a la carte dinner, and a take-out menu as well, but the dinner tasting menu was all they could handle until the provincial order came down to halt indoor dining.
“We’re overwhelmed,” John said in an interview before the lockdown. “We’re getting people from Kelowna, Port Coquitlam, West Vancouver. A guest loved it so much the other day, she’s coming back next week.
Our pre-lockdown dinner began with amuse bouche, a spicy Berkshire pork ball on a deftly chef-carved edible pineapple spoon. Ingredients, the chef says, are all organic and everything is made fresh daily, even the ice cream.
Three appetizers followed, each two or three bites — Thai ‘money bags’ stuffed with pork, prawns, spices and herbs; papery green papaya, rolled into cylinders sparkled with lime, chili and garlic; Sumas Mountain organic charcoal grilled beef tenderloin slices arrive in a puff of dry ice cloud in a sculptural glass bowl. And then, a refreshing light lemongrass and pandan drink to cleanse the palate.
Pad Thai usually looks like a messy hair day, but here it’s tamed, wrapped in a lacy egg net. The encased noodle are loose and light with a delicate mingling of tamarind, herbs, seasonings and prawns. For the tom yum, (dthom yam as it’s spelled on the menu) the broth took a heated trip up a siphon coffee maker, landing on a fresh bed of herbs and flowing through it. The aromatized broth is poured over prawns and mushrooms waiting in bowls.
Sumas Mountain duck, cooked sous vide and then charcoal grilled, arrives shrouded in smoke under a glass dome. Lifted, the duck materializes atop a lovely red curry sauce. It’s as tender as could be and served with two knobs of rice — purple riceberry and jasmine — both organically grown on chef’s farm in Thailand.
I panic when wild sockeye salmon arrives and it’s the size of a regular a la carte dish. I have no cubby holes left in my stomach. Hubby comes to the rescue as he often does, taking half of mine. The salmon has been marinated, then cooked via sous vide to a perfect temperature, then charcoal grilled. There’s Ocean Wise caviar and a scrunch of gold leaf on top and a mound of basil crumbs on the shores of a green curry sauce for crunch and colour. It’s a lovely dish despite my sated state of being.
The next three courses were light and refreshing and do-able — a lime sorbet palate cleanser and then a very pretty dessert composition with a fish-shaped coconut milk jelly, sticky rice made with freshly pressed coconut milk with sliced mango and a quenelle of coconut ice cream. And one last nibble — carved watermelon and luuk choop, a Thai chili lookalike sculpted from a marzipan-like paste of mung beans with a coating of agar, tinted red for the body and green for the stem. Okay, just one more item to ingest — some tea made with mint from the herb wall in the restaurant, a little digestive assistant.
The Phanthouphengs hired some big guns for their wine, cocktail and tea lists on a consulting basis, but they won’t be on the floor. Pier-Alexis Soulière, one of five master sommeliers in Canada, created the wine list; Kaitlyn Stewart, the 2017 World Class Bartender of The Year, developed the cocktails and Emmanuelle Viennois curated the tea list. As the menu changes seasonally, the beverages and matches will be adjusted.
Since the spice and heat is dialled back here, half the tasting menu’s six pairings are red. The full wine list is divided between B.C. and Europe, and the half-dozen cocktails enlist Southeast Asian flavours, tweaking classics.
Phanthoupheng has tamed the elements of sweet, sour, bitter, spicy and salty for western palates, more in keeping with royal Thai cuisine, detouring around strong and fiery flavours, but she masters a complicated balance. I’d spoken with the famous chef David Thompson when he was a guest chef at Vancouver’s Maenam a couple of years ago — he was previously the chef at Nahm in Bangkok which had received the first Michelin star for a Thai restaurant. Great western cuisine is like the music of Mozart and great Thai food to jazz, he said.
“I’ve also drawn the conclusion that cooking western food is like playing checkers, while cooking Thai is like chess,” he said, ribbing another guest, chef Pino Posteraro of Cioppino’s, Vancouver’s best Italian restaurant. “Many times I’ve thought to myself I wish I had not gone to Thailand and gone to Italy to cook instead, where all you have to do is add a dash of olive oil.”
This first tasting menu at Baan Lao is a journey throughout Thailand. The next seasonal menu will focus on the cuisine of the northeastern region of Isan.
To read this article in the Vancouver Sun, click here.