Lao Lao Bar
Lao Lao Bar is a new Lao-inspired restaurant opened by two of the co-founders behind the now-shuttered Sabai Sabai. Located just north of Wellesley near Yonge Street, the city's latest go-to dining destination is a contemporary celebration of owners Jason Jiang and Seng Luong's Lao heritage.
Not only fun to say but the restaurant's name is meant to evoke fun and inviting feelings.
"Lao Lao is a high-proof spirit that's distilled from fermented glutinous rice. It's known to be cheap and potent in the backpacking community. We thought it would be fun to name the restaurant that anyone who's been to Laos can relate to," says Luong. "That it would be a fun space and jog memories of their vacation."
The duo have recruited Truease Studio to help transform the former Wickson Social, and even shorter-lived Salvo Toronto, to create an eclectic space that blends natural woven textures with other motifs with a stunning central pillar gilded in gold leaf (hand-painted by Domi Haban) in a 110-seat room with rich walnut hues.
Here, Laos' rich cultural heritage – and the unique blend of local and French styles found in Luang Prabang and throughout Laos - is highlighted in the room's decor.
From light fixtures the duo transported from personal trips back from Laos to the expansive bar that's tiled in a pattern that's inspired by traditional Lao textiles, even the canopy of 19 hand-made fringed parasol jute lamps suspended above the restaurant’s main dining room were inspired by Laos’ French colonial past.
Additional dining areas include a semi-private dining room to the east side of the room which repurposes the large walnut bar top left from the space's Wickson Social days.
There's a lower-level lounge with a speakeasy vibe that's available for private bookings. Rumours are that it might be outfitted with a karaoke machine. Come summer, the restaurant will have a 20-seat patio along Wellesley street (which is potentially doubled with CafeTO).
The food and drink menus are an homage to the Lao flavours Jiang and Luong know – including the bold sharp flavours of fish sauce, chili heat and an abundance of herbs. Foods are often grilled versus deep-fried.
The profiles found in Lao food are less sweet, simple, leafy greens dominant, and relatively void of coconut milk. Here it's presented through a Toronto lens. The menu is brimming with share-friendly dishes divided into small and large plates, there are plenty of plant-based items for non-meat eaters.
Casual and fun, Jiang encourages patrons of the group-friendly spot to use their hands to enjoy their food. He also suggests the liberal use of the restaurant's homemade jeow, dipping sauces that are typically made with char-grilled vegetables.
At Lao Lao, it comes as tomato, eggplant and their own jeow bong, a sweet and savoury chili paste made from sun-dried chilies, galangal, garlic, shallots, tamarind, and fish sauce.
One of their signature dishes is the Sakoo Yat Sai or Tapioca Dumplings ($13) which hides a savoury and punchy shitake mushroom, radish and peanut filling in crystalline butterfly pea flower-stained tapioca.
Fun to eat on its own, the dumpling can also be wrapped and consumed with the lettuce leaves the dish is served with.
Heavenly Beef Jerky ($14) that comes with Lao chili dipping sauce is big and bold with flavour and grilled with just enough chew that straddles the line of best drinking snack with a finger-friendly appetizer.
I'm a fan of dehydrated meat and enjoyed – read: devoured all of – this without the dipping sauce.
The juicy and aromatic Sai Kok or Lao Sausage ($20) is made with pork belly that's seasoned with lemongrass, galangal, makrut leaf and shallots. It's served with dipping sauces and sticky rice and is a vibrant, flavourful and satisfying appetizer to share or a light meal for one.
Satay Chicken ($16) takes the crowd favourite and marinates it in turmeric and coconut milk. The grilled skewers are served with peanut sauce and a punchy shallot cucumber vinaigrette.
Moo Ping or BBQ Pork Skewers ($14) are thick and juicy. They come with Lao chili dipping sauce.
Nam Khao or Crispy Coconut Rice Salad ($23) is another dish that can be eaten with your hands and features fried coconut rice with fermented pork, lime, and herbs that can be consumed as a lettuce wrap.
Laap Shrimp ($22) takes diced shrimp and tosses them with lemongrass, galangal, makrut lime leaf, padaek – a traditional Lao fermented fish sauce and roasted rice.
Laap is probably one of my favourite dishes from the region, but this version using shrimp was new to me. It was almost light, refreshing, and fun to eat especially when sandwiched with sticky rice and wrapped with crisp, fresh lettuce leaves.
Rounding out the table was an earthy Stir-Fried Spinach ($15) side. Cooked with garlic and chili, the toothsome greens will eventually be replaced by morning glory when it comes in season.
I can't wait for that since I'm a big fan of the vegetable – it's also known as water spinach or ong choy - and its crisp texture.
For drinks, there's a conservative beer list but it does feature a larger selection of international wines that has everything from a Lambrusco to white rioja and even skin contact numbers.
The bar also offers a lineup of cocktails that tap into the tropical flavours of Laos. The signature Lost in Lao ($19) is a sweet and fruity number made from Pilla Select Aperitivo, vodka, orange Curaçao, calamansi and lemon juice.
The Golden Triangle ($18) contains pear soju, Amaro Nonino and pomelo juice.
Find Lao Lao Bar at 5 St. Joseph Street.