Don’t be dissuaded by the name. Lao Lao Bar located at 5 St. Joseph Street in Toronto is much more than just a bar. As they say ”It is about nourishing the senses and allowing their guests to slow down, connect, revel together.” This is a new Lao-inspired restaurant from the co-founders of the now-closed Sabi Sabi restaurant, partners Jason Jiang and Sent Loung, who have native Laotian heritage. The name Lao Lao is a high-proof spirit that is distilled from fermented, glutinous rice.
We did not know what to expect upon entering, as I had not heard much about the place, but I was impressed with the dining room and two semi-private spaces. Lots of natural wood and brick decorate the interior, with a long expansive bar draped in flower leis. Fringed parasol lamps adorn the high ceilings, and the central pillars are gilded in gold leaf. Burgundy walls and a unique blend of local and French styles feature in the décor.
The food and drink menu honour Lao flavours that are similar to Thai. They use a lot of fresh herbs like mint, cilantro, and lettuce, plus flavours like chili, lemongrass, fish sauce, peanuts, lime, galangal, and coconut. The food has vibrant colours, flavours, and is fragrant, aromatic, and beautifully presented. Some of my favourite dishes were the crispy papaya fritters, the tapioca dumplings (although I would use larger and softer pieces of lettuce for wrapping), the crispy coconut rice, featuring fried coconut rice with fermented pork, lime, and edible herbs in a lettuce wrap. The drunken noodles had a choice of proteins to choose from. We added shrimp as our protein. The morning glory was a Lao take on stir-fried spinach, but crunchier. They do an authentic rendition of green curry chicken served with jasmine rice. Their menu is large and many items sounded enticing. There is a whole section on the menu for plant-based items. Our server Catalina made great suggestions and I was impressed that every dish came out fresh and piping hot. In fact, there is an assembly area in the back of the restaurant where women diligently work away to finish off many plates and serve steaming hot rice at the last minute.
The bar was busy for the room’s energetic crowd. There were international wines and a creative lineup of cocktails, some with tropical flavours. I enjoyed my Lost in Lao drink, an Asian take on an Aperol spritz.
There was only one dessert on offer, a coconut ice cream served on top of tropical fruit.
My only complaint of the evening is the room was rather hot. Perhaps the building is old, and the room is large and the air conditioning system cannot manage to cool the space. Dress accordingly on a hot night. Come for a good time, with warm service, bold flavours, fresh herbaceous cuisine, and lots of open-fire cooking, where sticky rice is king.