Thursday, 18 November 2010

Choices choices

How do you decide where to eat? Read reviews? Guide books? Tripadvisor?

Most of the time I try to follow my instincts. You get a feel by reading menus, looking at a place, smelling it. If a menu features curry of the day as well as pasta of the day I guarantee you the food is going to be shit. If you walk into a Ramen joint in Tokyo and you can smell pigs, leave quietly.

But there are a lot of restaurants in Vientiane, I only have four nights, and I don't want to miss anything good. There's a strong French influence in town, so I'd like to strike some kind of balance between that and the local food.

Guide books are of limited use. Frommers is usually pretty reliable for restaurants, but things, and chefs, change more often than they print a new edition. The Lonely Planet can be a bit hit and miss - it's not written by food critics after all. But often it's all you have to go on. Two nights ago, I sided with the Lonely Planet. Here's what they say about Le Vendome:
Dripping in ivy and candlelit atmosphere, this hidden gem played host to journos during the Secret War. Souffles, pates, salads plus a good wine selection. Timeless.
I'll admit to being seduced by the image of khaki shirted writers sipping gin and tonics and flirting with each others' wives as the bombs rained down. And I interpreted timeless as a tender compliment. Here's what I wrote:

Dripping in ivy? Yes. The chef? A genius, succeeding where so many others have failed. He appears to have invented some sort of time machine, and is timelessly churning out French bistro food straight from the 1970s. An appalling sauce accompanies my steak. Greasy, oversalty fries and an unforgivable squiggle of marie-rose sauce on the edge of my plate. A bizarre and disgusting medley of badly cooked, lukewarm vegetables watches on. Desperate. Waste of a bullet.
Last night I used my own initiative and plumped for Makphet. It's a non-profit restaurant that only employs street kids, training them in the kitchen and hospitality in general. I can relax, with no expectations of the food and just appreciate the fact that they're doing the Lord's work. My old friend the Lonely Planet sticks to the salient information:
Described as a training restaurant run by street kids
(Described? As in is?) and
Newly located in a biscuit-coloured villa
I walked past it three times before I realised. First time I was looking for a bourbon, then a custard cream, then a pink wafer, before instantly recognising its unmistakable garibaldiness.

But on with the food. I start with rare buffalo fillet, thinly sliced and wrapped around julienned vegetables with a tamarind dip. Golden parcels of pork and dried shrimp come with a lime, fish sauce, chilli and peanut dip. They're both exceptionally good; fresh, simple, perfectly balanced and beautifully presented. Main course of stir fried chicken with young bamboo and mushrooms doesn't disappoint.

Later on, I'm walking home around about the time the Makphet kids are knocking off for the night. There must be at least fifty of them. They're all laughing and joking with each other as they get on their little bikes, still in their greasy uniforms, and ride off home together. That's how I'd describe it anyway. Awesome.

Tripadvisor? I think that may merit a separate post another time, when I've had a few more drinks and am in the mood for a proper rant. The bottom line is, know who you can trust...

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