Vancouver does some things well. Michelin level dining is not one of them. Michelin level Asian food is even tougher to pull off. Baan Lao makes it happen. This is a Thai restaurant located in Richmond, BC. The chef worked at Michelin starred restaurants in Thailand and also for the royal family prior to opening Bann Lan. Yes, the price is high, even by world standards, making it even more so for by Vancouver standards, but its worth it.
First, the setting is beautiful. Yes, its not downtown or in the city proper, but the interior is fresh, modern and clean, and there is a view of the water. In between bites of delicious food and sublime teas (if you get the tea pairing which I highly recommend), and if you need a break from conversation with your dining companion(s), you can watch as people walk their four legged friends on the boardwalk. The setting could not be more perfect.
Currently, the restaurant only offers a tasting menu. There is also a wine or tea pairing option. I opted for the latter as an interesting change. Here were the menus for the evening.
I won’t spoil all the surprises for you, as there will be a few throughout the evening, so lets get into the meal. I started off with a cocktail – Bird’s Eye View. It was well balanced. You get an initial taste of smoke from the mezcal and then just the right amount of heat combined with freshness from the lime and ginger. The service was a bit slow at the start, but there was a lot to look at so I barely noticed.
The amuse arrived via a lady in traditional Thai dress carrying baskets.
The minced pork was delicious. The dish was well balanced for the most part (I think the pineapple could of been a touch smaller to make the ratio of pineapple to pork better) and combined all the things one wants from Thai food – a harmonious balance between sweet, salty, sour and spicy. Even the flower/herbs on the side of the plate were delicious and fresh.
It was at this point we were presented with our first tea of the evening. Green tea. Our sommelier was amazing, and showed a level of attention to detail that just amazed me throughout the evening (I am not going to post all the tea presentations, but basically, with each course of tea, they will present the can/package, give a story, let you smell the leaves, and then come back with the drink).
I learned that each tea has a proper serving temperature and the mistake most people make is that they steep the tea using boiling water which brings out bitterness. This particular green tea needs to be steeped at 75 degrees, and then drop by 2 degrees upon serving. The result was the best green tea I have ever tasted. The color was unlike any I have seen before. Even the serving vessel was perfect. It had a lip to deliver the tea in an optimal way to your mouth – never seen this before and don’t know why this is not the standard tea cup – brilliant!
The tea preparer had her own station in the middle of the dining room for all to see. It added another element of entertainment to the evening. I watched her often in awe at the skill and mental ability needed to pull off this complex task. Think about this: for each table that ordered the tea pairing, she needed to keep track of where each table was in the meal in terms of matching the tea to the course. Then, she had to balance the different serving temperatures, steep times and processes to ensure that the tea was delivered to the table with the matching food. At times, there was a slight delay in getting the tea with the matching course, but it was understandable (I had to slow down eating a few times so that I could get the proper bite with a sip of the paired tea). Quality takes time, and once I tasted the teas that were INDEED perfectly paired to the course, it was worth the wait.
The first two appetizers were the “money bags”, basically a tie spring roll in a fried dumpling format and a papaya salad. Each bite was delicious. As a fan of fish sauce, I was in heaven. I could tell the quality from the syrup like texture to the deep taste. It came through nicely in all the dishes of the evening.
Next, beef which was charcoal grilled, presented with dry ice. Sometimes theatrics in a restaurant can be overdone. I thought the side shows at Bann Lao were well executed. This dish was good. My only feedback is that I wish the charcoal taste came through a bit more.
Next was a palate cleanser before the main courses. A drink of lemongrass and pandan. I was in heaven here. First, I love pandan. Second, the alternate tastes of lemongrass and pandan were so well balanced in this.
The first main course was the Pad (Phat) Thai. The chef has been cooking this with her grandmother since she was a child. This is where most Asian restaurants trying to do high end dining mess up. They take what is supposed to be street food, put a spin on it, charge a high price and usually end up disappointing; either because they are trying too hard or its just not well executed. That did not happen here. First, the presentation was spot on. The egg in the dish was beautifully presented as the wrapper to the dish. Next, the flavor was just perfect. Mind you I have never been to Thailand so I have no benchmark for how it “should” taste, but this dish was delicious. For me the portion was big, but to leave even a tiny bit of this creation on the plate would be sacrilege.
Next, a soup very creatively presented. The broth was delicious with deep well developed flavors.
The duck course came next with an incredible curry sauce which had deep well balanced flavors. The curry and spices were not overpowering. The fish sauce added a lot of complexity and then sweetness from coconut. It was served with rice from the chef’s farm in Thailand. The Jasmine had a fragrance that was so nice, I could not believe it was natural. Apparently, as one of the servers explained, most rice in grocery stores has been sitting for months. In contrast, Baan Lao’s rice come direct from the chef’s fields, maintaining the aromas. I would of liked the duck slightly more medium rare. It was still a delicious dish.
At this point we were stuffed, but the last dish is the restaurant’s signature – salmon with green curry sauce, and basil crumbs, topped with caviar. Again, the curry sauce was so good and I liked the fact that they gave us a red (in the previous dish) and green version. The basil crumbs were brilliant and added nice flavor and texture to the dish. They made each bite almost perfect. Two things I would of liked – more caviar (which did not come through) and slightly less cooked on the salmon. I would not say it was dry, but I prefer it more moist. The skin was perfectly crisp.
Next was a much needed lime sorbet.
Followed by dessert.
…and mint tea from their in house micro garden.
Overall, this was an incredible meal. I would put this on my list of must eat in Vancouver for this type of dining along with Anna Lena, Ubuntu and Published on Main. Each person working provided amazing service and a genuine passion for what they are doing. I learned a lot about teas this evening. The setting is beautiful as is the food. Its more than a meal, its an evening of entertainment and learning. I will definitely be back when the menu changes.