Home » Baan Mae restaurant review: Laotian chef toasts mothers and McDonald’s

Baan Mae restaurant review: Laotian chef toasts mothers and McDonald’s

by ballyhooglobal.com
0 comment

A piece of advice from someone who’s been eating on the job for decades: Try the dish that looks like it doesn’t belong on the menu. There’s almost always a good story behind it, and it almost always pleases.

Abroad and close to home, the strategy routinely works in my favor, most recently at the new Baan Mae. The successor to Seng Luangrath’s wonderful Laotian watering hole, Hanumanh, Baan Mae finds the chef back in the storefront’s basement kitchen in Shaw. The Laotian native, who learned to cook in a refugee camp in Thailand, casts a wider net this time with a menu celebrating Southeast Asian moms, including herself.

As such, she’s serving a dish she became familiar with after her family relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1983. After church, her parents treated Luangrath and her siblings to what she remembers as “luxury dining”: lunch at McDonald’s, where the future chef gravitated to the Filet-O-Fish. She never lost her taste for the sandwich. Even now, Luangrath says she heads to the Golden Arches when she seeks comfort at the end of her shift at one of her restaurants, which also include Thip Khao in D.C. and two branches of Padaek in Northern Virginia.

Which brings me to the “fi-lao o’fish” at Baan Mae. Four of us ooh and ahh as we bite into the sliders, and Luangrath’s youthful memory — steaming fish, tender bun, a tangy sauce that’s quick to leave the confines of the sandwich — rouses our childhood recollections of Filet-O-Fish. Baan Mae’s version improves on the original, with brioche from a Korean bakery in Annandale and kick from jaew som, a cilantro chile sauce. Standing in for tartar sauce is tofu mayonnaise. The sliders, held together with little spears, are a prime example of what Luangrath wants to do at Baan Mae, whose name is Lao for “mom’s house.”

Baan Mae comes with an irksome pandemic relic: a menu accessed via QR codes. (If printing costs and daily changing lists are an issue, why not consider roving chalkboard menus, a la the original, much-missed Pesce? A lot of diners hate having to order off their phones.) But irritation gives way to delight when I spot sakoo topping the list of small plates. The steamed dumplings, made with tapioca pearls, are a luscious, uncommon carry-over from Hanumanh. Filled with ground peanuts, preserved radish and earthy cilantro, the see-through orbs are also gluten-free and vegan. Diners are encouraged to dispatch the chewy-textured balls with lettuce scoops. Another rival for my affection are the steamed dumplings crammed with ground pork, shrimp, shiitakes and water chestnuts, which blossom when dipped in a combination of chile crisp, black vinegar and sweet soy sauce.

Luangrath knows how to shock diners. There may be no more scorching shrimp in town than her raw Argentine shrimp. “It’s a bar snack,” designed to be washed back with beer, she says of the butterflied shrimp plied with a mash of green chiles, cilantro and garlic. Adding fuel to the fire is a stream of fresh lime juice. The appetizer is deceptive; recipients detect cool on the fingers, then dynamite on the tongue. You’ve been warned, faint hearts. Personally, I can’t wait to order the crudo again.

Ditto the banh mi, or at least an interactive version of one of the world’s best sandwiches. The kitchen sends out a little dish of chicken pâté, some baguette slices and matchsticks of pickled jicama and carrots. The spread is so good, I could eat it alone. What’s not to like about chicken livers whipped with ginger, garlic and what Luangrath calls “Lao whiskey”? She’s referring to Johnnie Walker, a brand favored by Laotians and a way to tame any gaminess in the chicken liver. Nyi Nyi Myint, Luangrath’s longtime business partner and Baan Mae’s creative director, had the idea to finish the pâté with a bit of frizzy pork floss and jaew bong, or chile jam, and all I can add is a thank you. The touches are lovely bonuses.

This is food that comes out cheetah-fast. At least the staff lets you order small plates and main courses separately instead of all at once. The pause gives you time to better appreciate the light, Burmese-inspired chickpea tofu skewers, another vegan attraction on the menu. The pale yellow cubes, also available as sliders, are dressed at the table with a sauce that’s sweet with onion, cool with cucumber, and cozy with cumin.

Luangrath’s mother is remembered with glossy braised pork ribs. In Laos, the matriarch would have used less expensive pork belly, says her daughter, and the meat would have bobbed in a soup or offered in something saucy. The cheffed-up tribute is sticky with caramelized fish sauce, lychee and mango juice — sweet, but tropically so, and balanced — and garnished with fresno chiles and fried shallots. Sticky rice accompanies the entree, as it would in Laos.

Pork fanciers are in luck here. In addition to ribs, Baan Mae makes lon som, ground pork with the loose texture of a sloppy joe and some bold heat from Thai chiles. The mixture is topped with coconut cream and offered with a handful of vegetables — cabbage, watermelon radishes, cucumbers — for eating alongside. One way to tackle the entree is to ladle some pork over a scoop of the accompanying rice, something of a surprise when it lands on the table. The fluffy grains are soft blue from having been cooked with butterfly pea flower.

A contribution from Myint, a Burma native, massaman curry is sheer comfort, bites of tender short rib and potato in a gravy whose dried Thai chiles and masala powder linger on the tongue even after the bowl has been cleared. Myint says the dish is in honor of his mother who made the dish for him as a child. (Lucky kid.)

Admirers of Luangrath’s last restaurant here should prepare for some time travel, déjà vu or both. The space retains the spirit of Hanumanh. The fanciful mural painted with monkey characters still adorns the main wall and upside-down parasols still drop from the ceiling. High-top tables dominate the seating, although tables closer to the ground are found in back and up front, in window alcoves that almost place their occupants on the sidewalk, albeit with the benefit of A/C.

If you sit in back, note that the rear door leading to the patio blasts diners with what feels like klieg lights every time it’s opened — and some nights, the door opens and closes a lot. If you’re led to the rear, make like Anna Wintour and don sunglasses.

There’s a single male cook at Baan Mae. The other five are women, Hispanic except for Luangrath, who sees her project evolving. The chef plans to host future suppers in which other women with Southeast Asian ties cook together for an evening. Separately, Luangrath wants to raise the profile and contributions of her in-house colleagues.

In the months ahead, don’t be surprised to see chicken green curry tamales or laab pork tacos on the menu.

1604 7th St. NW. 202-897-4826. baanmaedc.com. Open for indoor and outdoor dining 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Prices: Small plates $9 to $17, main courses $23 to $39. Sound check: 77 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: No barriers to entrance; ADA-compliant restrooms.

Source link

Related Articles

Leave a Comment

Adblock Detected

Please support us by disabling your AdBlocker extension from your browsers for our website.