I can assure you that you will not go hungry in Luang Prabang. This pretty little Unesco town may be small, but its steady tourist trade means it is mighty when it comes to culinary offerings. During the day, the cafes and casual eateries dotted in amongst the souvenir shops and tour agencies in the main strip are awash with tourists seeking a bite to eat and refuge from the hot afternoon sun. When darkness falls, the streets come alive with the night market providing a one-stop-shop for eating, drinking, shopping, and people-watching! For a cheap and cheerful dinner, we couldn’t go wrong with a steaming bowl of Lao khao soi noodles which are like an ingenious cross of soup noodles and bolognese complete with herbs and condiments, while others went mad for the barbecue stalls or vegetarian buffets.
If you are in the mood for something with less curbside decor, there are restaurants aplenty serving anything from traditional Laotian cuisine to classic French fare, a legacy of their colonial past. However not all restaurants are created equal, and as is common in many tourist-centric towns, some are guilty of resting on their reputations and ultimately proving to be overhyped and overpriced. We experienced this at a much lauded French establishment serving food from a bygone era with little flavour or finesse, while others have also talked of standards slipping at other well known Laotian restaurants. After this, we stayed away from the main tourist hub and found our two favourite Laotian dining experiences located just a short tuk tuk ride away on the outskirts…
La Belle Epoque at The Luang Say Residence
I must admit straight away that it was not difficult for us to discover La Belle Epoque because we were staying at the beautiful Luang Say Residence during our time in Luang Prabang. After our long journey on the slow-boat from Pakbeng, we decided we were too tired to venture out so stuck with dinner at La Belle Epoque. The restaurant itself is set in a light and airy space filled with colonial style furnishings, and the service is friendly and attentive. We took a punt on the Laotian Tasting Menu and it exceeded all our expectations – it was a fantastic introduction to the cuisine.
The first course was a delightful platter consisting of a laarb kai (warm chicken mince salad with herbs), a banana blossom salad with prawns and pork, pork and buffalo sausages, and spicy chilli sauces. The sausages were meaty and moreish but if I’m being honest, it was the salads I couldn’t get enough of for their vibrancy and freshness. These have now become some of my favourite Laotian dishes. The main course also came with so many options, this indecisive orderer was in pure heaven. We both loved the grilled pork on lemongrass skewers and the mok pla (steamed fish mousse), but were divided on the buffalo stew and duck curry. I found the latter too sweet for my liking, whilst the thin broth of the former didn’t meet a certain someone’s stew criteria – at least we didn’t have to fight over who would finish off which!
While all the dishes had been presented in a contemporary fashion, dessert was probably the most familiar of all, albeit with local flavours. A creamy coconut panna cotta was brought to life by a zingy passionfruit sorbet, sweet cubes of mango and crisp shavings of fresh coconut; the perfect finale to a satisfying meal. La Belle Epoque is somewhat of a hidden gem in Luang Prabang’s culinary scene; while most of the Luang Say Residence’s guests will dine there at least once (or thrice in our case), many staying in the main town centre don’t bother taking that short five minute tuk tuk ride to this delicious oasis. It’s a shame, and a situation which I hope changes soon because the quality of ingredients, style of cooking and execution is truly fantastic!
Manda de Laos at Maison Dalabua
Set around a gorgeous lotus pond which even has its own Unesco honour, Manda de Laos is without doubt one of the most striking restaurants I have even dined in. Though it’s got a stylish, upmarket vibe, the atmosphere is very relaxed and welcoming, and the staff bend over backwards to make sure you have the best experience. This is exactly the kind of hospitality I imagine from a restaurant opened in honour of a mother’s cooking and shared family dining. We were thrilled to be seated at their private table in amongst the pond; this secluded spot was utterly magical and made our last night out in Luang Prabang quite romantic. But it’s not all about the stylish surroundings, the food also lives up to its reputation of delivering refined takes on Laotian classics.
Cocktails seemed to be the most appropriate way to dive into the evening, while we were perusing the menu jammed packed with delectable sounding dishes. Had we come with a group to feast, we would have been tempted by the set menus but on this occasion stuck with a la carte. We became firm fans of papaya salad in Thailand so were intrigued by the Laos version. At the heart of it, the salad was the same tangy mix which made our tastebuds tingle with joy, but here it came with an incredibly tender and sweet grilled pork which really raised the bar! We also deemed the tamarind duck breast with sticky rice to be a winner when the taut, glistening skin gave way to reveal succulent blush-pink duck meat.
My dish of baked fish was more of a spectacle, arriving completely whole, it was filleted ever so carefully by our waiter at the table. He seemed nervous and who could blame him… it’s tricky enough without dealing with the mood lighting and two pairs of eyes stalking your every move! But it was worth the effort because the flesh was mellow and juicy, and perfectly enhanced by the eggplant chutney and tomato sauces! We capped off our evening with the a banana and chocolate choux and the last drops of our wine before the tropical thunderstorm rolled in for a dramatic end to our time at Manda de Laos. It’s already a firm favourite amongst those in the know, and rightfully so too as the food, service and atmosphere are some of the best in town!
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