There is a change from the flow of contemporary muzak pop through the sound system and after a brief moment of silence, the delicate and distinctive strains of Thai music call your name. Inside the light-filled, high-ceilinged restaurant, waiters have retreated from dining tables as a lone woman, dressed in traditional Thai attire, appears and begins dancing.
She turns to each full table to connect with the diners, who understandably are perhaps a mixture of enchanted and uncomfortable. After all, it’s not every day you sit down at an elegant restaurant in Metro Vancouver that includes this kind of entertainment with your meal.
The meal is, in fact, a feast, done as what amounts to a 13-course tasting menu, featuring “royal” Thai cuisine. The restaurant is Baan Lao, which opened in 2021 in the Steveston area of Richmond, and although they’ve had to make some pandemic pivots, the goal has always been to provide an upscale Thai dining experience. truly like no other you will find in Metro Vancouver.
Baan Lao is the brainchild of chef Nutcha Phanthoupheng, who opened the restaurant with her husband, with the aim of elevating Thai cuisine while spotlighting local produce and incredible protein.
The result is an expensive tasting menu ($190 per person) that will reshape your understanding of Thai cuisine – it certainly is for me.
My earliest memories of trying Thai food find me sitting cross-legged on my studio floor with a moist styrofoam take-out box of Pad Thai, or sharing mounds of fried noodles coated in a sticky orange sauce fluorescent (Meegrob). In Los Angeles – the US city with the largest population of Thais – I was spoiled for choice when it came to Thai food, but back then I tended to stick to my comfort zone of the bbq chicken, Tom Kha Gai (coconut soup) and the aforementioned noodles.
The thing about Thai cooking, which I’ve learned over the years, is that what might strike the palate or the eye that simple is actually an incredible layering of flavors and technique. This is one of the reasons many home cooks, myself included, have been hesitant to try their hand at Thai dishes; the ingredient lists are long and may include components that require a trip to a specialty grocery store and there are many steps to create the flavors and final product. No wonder we turn to Thai for takeout, lunches with office colleagues or potted sauces to give our home cooking a boost.
Baan Lao, on the other hand, is inspired by a completely different sector of Thai cuisine, the “royal” tradition, and it is rare to find this exacting style of cooking in a Canadian restaurant. If you thought Thai cuisine was a myriad of ingredients expertly prepared before, Baan Lao and Royal Thai cuisine might blow your mind.
Although the dishes may be similar to typical central Thai dishes, the cuisine follows a set of explicit rules: “First, all ingredients used must be the best and freshest available. Second, all dishes must be pitted , pitted and pitted. Third, all flavors should be perfectly balanced, with no extremes in any particular direction, including spiciness,” describes a Michelin Guide explainer of royal Thai cuisine.
To that end, Phanthoupheng is rolling out things like organic free-range duck from Sumas Mountain Organic Farm in the Fraser Valley and two varieties of organic rice grown in his own family’s fields in Thailand. For the Bpet Yang Gaaeng Phet Sauce the duck is prepared sous vide (in an immersion heater) then finished on a charcoal grill and served with a silky red curry that offers a simmering tingle on the palate, cut by chunks of sweet pineapple and tempered by bites of rice fluffy.
Each dish is its own kind of delight, whether it’s because it’s a single piece that bursts with flavor, like the ground pork amuse-bouche to start, or a version of a dish familiar, like the pad thai, which tells you what you know about it in a modern, refined and “wow” territory. Even though I had had Baan Lao’s Pad Thai to go before, as part of his “signature” dinner, their Phat Thai Goong is presented beautifully, with egg web wrapped around the bundle of tender noodles coated in that envy-worthy sweet-sour-spicy sauce.
Sometimes Baan Lao stacks the deck with presentation, such as when a course is carried to the table via some sort of yoke contraption balanced on the server’s shoulders. It’s not smoke and mirrors, though – just a bit of dry ice causing a fog around your pieces of charcoal-grilled, grass-finished organic beef tenderloin salad. There’s a soup that’s reheated with equipment that resembles the kind of science lab equipment used in high-end cafes, and the salmon course includes Ocean Wise caviar and edible gold.
Between the sections are refreshing palate cleansers, and the finish offers some sweet bites, like wow Gathi, coconut milk jelly in a fish-shaped mold, sticky rice and fresh fruit. The total number of courses is over a dozen, and each is delivered in style with very traditional gourmet white glove service. Extra touches like a coat check, a personal greeting letter, and a lovely staff-signed card to say goodbye put Baan Lao in that much-vaunted restaurant class that’s in short supply in Metro Vancouver.
Gracious Chef Phanthoupheng will also come out of the kitchen to personally thank you for dining at Baan Lao. The restaurant is the product of the former nurse and cancer researcher’s deep appreciation for her girlish roots in Thailand, her connection to the land and her respect for food.
As a delightful talking point, the walls of Baan Lao are adorned with elephant paintings that just happen to be made by an elephant (yes, you read that right). They are from Suda, a world famous Thai painting elephant.
To take your meal to the next level and perhaps deviate further from your usual Thai restaurant experience, you can opt for wine pairings with dinner, with curated selections from British Columbia and overseas. by master sommelier Pier-Alexis Souliere. If you’re more of a tea lover, never fear, they also have a tea sommelier listing. Tea pairings are $60 more, wine $80.
Clearly, Baan Lao is a singular dining experience that isn’t for everyone and will be prohibitively expensive for most (dinner for two $380 before tax and tip and without drinks; that’s $540 before tax and tipping with wine pairings), however, it could easily end up on any “to do list” of foodie must-dos in and around Vancouver. For those looking to get in and spend less, the restaurant is currently developing an accessible, more family-friendly lunch offering and also plans to relaunch its takeout program soon.
@vancouverisawesome This is one of the fanciest diners you’ll find in Metro Vancouver! #vancouverbc #forkingawesome #food #thaifood #richmondbc ♬ Lazy Sunday – Official Sound Studio
Baan Lao is located at 4100 Bayview St in Richmond. Dinner is served Wednesday through Sunday, with two services each evening, at 5 p.m. and 7 p.m.