Royal funk spices Lao cuisine in Bangkok
Lao prince entrepreneurs mix chic and daring to traditional Lao flavors in the newly opened Funky Lam Kitchen
There are two words and eight letters in the red neon name for one of Bangkok’s newest and perhaps only chic Lao dining venues, and the halfway character purposely blinks on and off: “Fun y Lam.”
The point seems to be Funky Lam Kitchen’s mantra: Keep the funk alive. But what is so funky about this Lao food in Thailand?
First of all, it’s rarely done in such a hip way in Bangkok. Second, its creators are two Lao princes, one a descendant of the northern Luang Prabang kingdom, the other from the southern Champassak kingdom of the tiny, now communist Laos, or Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Both wanted to capture the emigrant family tastes of their childhoods in Paris.
Third, as Saya Na Champassak, one of those princes, boasts, “We are not afraid of fermented fish.”
The resulting flavors embrace bitter and bold and sometimes very spicy in a diversion from the Thai treatment (gravy and curry) of similar dishes – so much so, it moved a reuniting Lao family to give the best compliment the New Zealand manager, Adam Ivory, has heard since the July opening: “It tastes just like home.”
And fourth, it is exploring a new-to-Bangkok concept of two dramatically different restaurants in one location. (The other of the princes, Sanya Souvanna Phouma, is a veteran of introducing new ideas, with a string of such culinary nightclub hits as Bed Supperclub, Maggie Choo’s, Iron Fairies and Sing Sing.)
By day (8 am to 5 pm) 235 Soi 11 Thonglor, Sukhumvit Soi 55, goes by the name Luka Moto, a café of Western comfort food such as all-day breakfast plus burgers, burritos and cakes with a nameplate that says “drinks, food, bikes.” Indeed, three huge BMW motorcycles consume prime dining space inside.
Then at closing time, the staff changes, and another crew quickly shifts the blinds, slips a narrow band of fabric embroidered with a Lao letter over the back of the some 45 chairs, turns down the lighting and opens the doors to the intimate, two-level Funky Lam Kitchen.
The meter-wide copper bar becomes a glowing center of attention. The motorcycles remain, but never mind.
“You have to try the drinks,” says a friend, “especially Salty Sally”, which is named after one of her best friends who happens to be the mother of one of the prince owners.
Refreshingly so, Salty Sally is a sharply salted white rum fizz. Above the bar, a bounty of limes sits for up to three months in fat jars of rock salt, waiting for the next Sally. Queen of the South is a salted plum-infused locally made gin with hints of lemongrass, pineapple and mango.
“Drinks” is an understatement for these original cocktails. If strong spirits are not your preference, Saya says the other best companion to spicy Lao food is a sparkling rosé from Portugal.
The menu is brief, two small pages excluding the deserts. It may be simple in number, but the array of flavors is anything but. If this is reflective of the owners’ childhoods, then, geez, they ate like royalty at home.
A Kaipen starter consists of Mekong riverweed imported in paper-thin sheets, deep fried and covered in sesame. The delicate wafers are meant for a dollop of three jaew toppings (a gentle fermented fish, eggplant and tomato).
The Feu Kra Dook Seen is geared towards bone marrow lovers, if only because the gooey marrow for spooning out of the three bone bits leaves the spicy broth incredibly oily. The betel leaf salad, Sarad Lao, with crispy roasted chilies and white turmeric is addictive.
These are Lao dishes with a twist and “noble ingredients”, says Saya. The wagyu beef and the trout are from Australia; the vegetables and herbs are as organic as possible.
Standard for each table is a basket of sticky rice and sprigs of unusual green leaves with savory to sweet tastes that sweep away lingering spice.
Judging by the exotic, sumptuous and envious look of other tabletops jammed with the signature slow-cooked Short Rib Or Lam, fermented fish paste som tam crowned with a tempura soft-shelled crab, larb with minced duck and grilled baby chicken with avocado, it’s probably best to come with a small party just for the joy of tasting more of the menu.
Desert is necessary but not a burden: a coconut pannacotta with passion fruit, a dark chocolate mouse or a vanilla bean rice pudding with toasted young coconut leaves and cashew praline, each of them just right in size to leave the palate wanting more.
Pungently mixing flavors, aromas, cultures and histories in an already-crowded Bangkok street of great dining, Funky Lam Kitchen also leaves you wanting more.
Reservations needed due to popularity. Funky Lam Kitchen, Sukhumvit 55, Bangkok. Open 6 pm to 11 pm, Wednesdays to Monday (just to be different)