There is amazing French Food in Laos? A traveller tale hard to believe when it comes next to Beer Lao t-shirts and tubing. I never had faith in the rumours and as a skeptic I only took half bites. Roadside baguettes and Vietnamese style crepes. Ignoring the French restaurants I thought came along for novelty value. Before now I’ve only been once (reluctantly) to a French restaurant in Vietnam. I ordered a Croque Monsieur and was served a cheese toastie – no better than that from a 7/11. Since then I lost interest. Until today. While seeking shelter from heavy rain in Savannakhet, a small town in Southern Laos, I was forced into a French restaurant in the old plaza area of town. An empty area. An area of beat up and dishevelled colonial shop-houses. It was the last place I expected to find great French food in Laos. After a breakfast of Noodle Soup and Baguette Sandwich I have room left for a quick bite.
With olives on the menu I couldn’t resist. I am a fiend for olives. In Bangkok when I find olives I eat olives. This goes the same for Tapenade. Unfortunately I never find any worth mentioning. Sitting at Daosavanh Restaurant I honestly had little expectations. A small portion arrives with bright coloured picks. Disappointing. When I tasted them I was wowed. The best olives I’ve tasted… not only in Southeast Asia. Excited I call the menu back and again play it safe (cheap). My worry with French food in Laos is it comes with a hefty markup on local foods. Greater chance of disappointment… yet still very cheap. I order a Croque Madame. Again slightly disappointed to see it served with a squeezy ketchup bottle and salt shaker with a sombrero. Tasted and again wowed. The food here is good. Very good. Honestly hard to believe how good. Having been in Paris a couple months back I wasn’t eating food this good. Certainly not at this price. Final Bill including a big bottle of’Beer Lao Gold’ 72,000 Kip under US$10.
The weirdest of places to find top notch French food. For a start – tourists in Savannakhet are next to none. The old plaza area neglected and crumbling since life moved to the main street 500m down the road. So had I stumbled on my own hidden gem? Of course not. Food of this standard doesn’t go hidden for long. Not many mentions online mind you. Googling ‘Daosavanh Restaurant’ the first comes from Frommers commending its perfection and the second labelling Daosavanh as the ‘Best French restaurant in southern Laos’. Either way I was going back. That night I walked to the area, 2km from my hotel, to check out the nearby Lin’s Cafe. Really I was going to Daosavanh I just hadn’t yet told myself. With a crowded Lin’s Cafe (local tourist hub) I happily pass by to the deserted Daosavanh Restaurant. In all my visits I see no other customer. That night I sit with wine and olives and watch cats chase dogs on the empty square next to me. Like a backward world. Unfortunately the red wine was chilled but this does tend to be the norm for ‘wine by the glass’ in Southeast Asia. A large glass of wine costs 30,000 Kip (US$3.80). Olives 20,000 Kip (US$2.50).
My visit to this odd part of Laos was on a quick and cheap VISA run to Savannakhet. Bringing with me a tiny budget and no expectation of fancy French food or wine quaffing. But now I was determined to taste the rest. A quick Skype call home “Baby I’m taking out money. I have to eat this food…” I spent that night hankering for Grilled Beef Rib-Eye with Herbes de Provence, Pepper Sauce and french fries. A 3 course set meal with fresh garden salad and ice-cream dessert. 95,000Kip or US$12. Prices like this aren’t found in this world. Gourmet food albeit without the pithy crap. I arrive for a late breakfast. The salad was salad. I have little to say about salad. A decent vinaigrette of (I think) garlic and Dijon mustard. Warm baked bread rolls and a soft, salted butter. The steak cooked perfect with a tasty rich pepper sauce. Steak could have been bigger. So today I wasn’t wowed by the food but remain highly impressed by the quality and hard to find ingredients. In truth steak mightn’t have been the best selection for me. I eat tasty imported steaks all the time so wowing was a guaranteed hard feat. The slow cooked duck leg with olives likely the better option (same price set meal).
I don’t find Lao food overly exciting. Much similar to its Thai Isan and Vietnamese neighbours. Thai Isan Food better found in Isan. Vietnamese food found better in Vietnam. For this reason Laos never ranked high on my to-do-list when travelling. But now with this added dimension I would happily go back. In search of tasty French food and restaurants. Hopefully without disappointment. Looking back I am still unsure what wowed me. Was it the unexpected and obscure location? Or was the food really that good? Since Daosavanh Restaurant I ate Lao food for every meal in Laos. All feeling like wasted meals. French food is now my reason for visiting Laos.