Name: Baan Lao
Location: 100 Bayview St., Richmond, B.C.
Cuisine: Thai fine dining
Price: Nine-course tasting menu, $190 a person; wine pairings, $70; tea pairings, $40
Additional Information: Open Wednesday to Sunday; 5 and 7 p.m. seatings, reservations required (through website); no patio or takeout.
We’ve been stuck in a nightmare traffic jam for three hours on a Sunday afternoon drive home from Squamish. According to Google Maps, it’s going to take us another 90 minutes to cross the Lion’s Gate Bridge and get to Steveston. With a 10-minute pit stop to wash and change, we’ll be approximately 45 minutes late for our dinner reservation.
If it were any other restaurant, I wouldn’t even bother ditching my flip-flops.
But this is Baan Lao, one of the most ambitious, formal and expensive fine-dining restaurants that Metro Vancouver has ever seen. The room is booked solid until September. And if we don’t show up tonight, the restaurant will be out $700.
“Don’t worry, we’ll hold your table,” the maître d’ reassures over the phone, explaining that another couple has been delayed in the same gridlock.
When we finally arrive at the airy, modern sanctum with lofted ceilings and glass garage doors overlooking the Fraser River, the tension rolls off my shoulders.
A white-gloved server brandishing gold tongs drapes napkins across our laps, then offers warm towels to wash our hands.
Suddenly, a lithe dancer appears beside us in a pink silk gown, black mask and bare feet, gently swaying and bending her fingers into elegant bird-like contortions.
The dancer returns moments later, with a bamboo pole hoisted across her narrow shoulder. Balanced atop rice baskets hanging from either end are two amuse bouche: exquisite balls of minced Berkshire pork – herbaceous, lightly zesty and crunchy with peanuts – served on juicy pineapple pedestals infused with perfumed lime leaf and carved into handled spoons.
After a quick costume change, the dancer reappears dressed in a black suit to help deliver a succession of appetizers that are set down on the table with choreographed precision.
There are crispy “money bag” dumplings, cinched by chive ribbons, stuffed with a tender blend of pork and prawn.
Green papaya salad is deconstructed into tiny, rolled cylinders and adorned with edible flowers appliquéd by tweezers. The bite-sized morsels rest on a dazzling garlic-tomato sauce that deftly balances a tightrope of sweet, spicy and sour flavours.
Slender slices of char-grilled tenderloin, festooned by a bright, minty salad bursting with flavourful celery leaves and sweet pea-sized tomatoes, is served in a glass globe with a theatrical puff of dry ice.
For a palate cleanser, there is icy lemon grass and pandan juice with notes of rose, almond, vanilla and a sweet, grassy finish.
The lights are dimmed. A rosy sunset glows off delicate wine glasses and splendid silverware, custom-ordered in the same round-edged pattern used by Thailand’s royal family.
But what is this place called Baan Lao, which means “our home” in Thai?
The restaurant is owned by executive chef Nutcha Phanthoupheng and her husband, John, an entrepreneur who prefers to stay out of the spotlight. They live nearby and have no outside investors.
Ms. Phanthoupheng was a nurse and cancer researcher in Thailand. After marrying and moving to Canada, she decided to pursue her passion for cooking – pivoting fast and deep.
She returned to Thailand to train with two culinary superstars: Chumpol Jangprai, a Thai Iron Chef title holder who owns the two-Michelin-starred R-Haan; and Vichit Mukura, one of Thailand’s most celebrated master chefs who previously cooked for the royal family and has headed up some of the country’s leading restaurants.
Both of her mentors specialize in Royal Thai cuisine, a tradition that she follows and is important to note. Royal cuisine has specific rules and standards that emphasize balance, mellow flavours and beautiful aesthetics. If you are seeking fireworks on the palate and experimental fusion, you will not find it at Baan Lao.
The signature menu that she opened with in February and is still offering today is deliberately familiar. After the show-stopping appetizers, it moves into what I would call safer ground, with somewhat pedestrian staples gussied up in fancy dress.
There is pad Thai – vibrant with hand-squeezed tamarind juice, but lacking wok hei smokiness, and soft to the bite – wrapped in a lacy egg nest.
Tom yum soup is dramatically filtered tableside in a siphon coffee maker filled with fresh herbs, but proves more interesting to the nose than the mouth.
Herb-crusted duck is cooked sous-vide, which unfortunately strips away all its texture so it ends up playing a bland second fiddle to a voluptuous red curry. The dish is served with balls of nutrient-dense riceberry and jasmine rice (imported fresh from the chef’s family farm) on the side.
The artistic plating is wondrous. The chef’s carving skills are impeccable. And I do think it was wise to open with recognizable dishes – formal tasting menus are a hard-enough sell in Vancouver, and it will be even tougher to convince some people that elevated Thai food is worth the five-star price.
But I hope to be more wowed by her next menu, launching in late September, which will draw from her home region of northeastern Isan and incorporate authentic local delicacies such as red-ant caviar, crickets and grasshoppers.
My only other complaint is the beverage service, but this is a hopefully a temporary glitch. The restaurant went to great expense to hire some of the very best cocktail, wine and tea consultants in Canada. But they’re not on the floor and didn’t train the regular staff members, who are either old-school hotel managers or inexperienced newcomers. The wine steward recently left and the tea sommelier is on extended sick leave.
Curious diners can always refer to a thick sheaf of menus, which explain everything about the pairings, but that’s not the type of service expected at this level.
Baan Lao, for all its fussy theatrics and stiff polish, has a communication problem. Instead of being transportive, it feels performative.
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