Luang Prabang, a relatively sleepy mountain town in Laos where the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers cross, is about to see some exciting new activity in its local food scene.
It’s long been loved by travelers as a place to relax, enjoy tranquility, offer alms to saffron-clad monks, and awake to morning fog, but Luang Prabang has never really been much of a dining destination. Soon, though, the chefs behind the Michelin-starred Paste Bangkok will be bringing in a contemporary fine dining restaurant specializing in Laotian cuisine.
Paste at The Apsara is set to open later this year in November. We spoke to celeb chef Bee Satongun — who’s riding high in a year in which her restaurant got its first Michelin star and she won Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants’ Best Female Chef in Asia award — and Ivan Scholte, owner of The Apsara, the Luang Prabang boutique hotel where the restaurant will be located, ahead of the opening.
Paste at The Apsara, or Paste Laos as some foodies are calling it online, is a surprising move to many who might have expected Paste to open a new location in a more established dining-centric city like Hong Kong, Singapore, or Paste co-founder Jason Bailey’s native Australia. Bee said “when people hear, they are quite surprised.”
But it may not be as surprising as it first seems. Firstly, Bee has Laotian, namely Hmong, heritage and recalls eating Laotian food as a child with her grandmother. Secondly, Paste Bangkok bases their menu on ancient Thai recipes, some dating back to the reign of Rama I. They often say that they use 80 percent historical recipes with 20 percent modern updates.
In Thailand, they took inspiration from classic Sanitwong family recipes. The second Paste menu will also be inspired by traditional recipes from Phia Sing’s book of dishes served at the Laotian Royal Palace generations ago.
Like the Bangkok location, Paste at The Apsara will use the same kind of detailed processes with a focus on doing things the old-fashioned way, with sauces that may contain over 20 layers of flavor and over 30 ingredients.
Bee was not ready to reveal any of the Laotian menu items yet, telling us that she is still working on the development of these dishes. She told Coconuts that the project has so overtaken her thoughts that she has even been dreaming about the recipes at night.
However, this photo of classic Laotian dish Char-grilled pork loin with jeow kha appeared on Jason Bailey’s Twitter a few days ago with the tags #PasteLaos, #Apsara, #ApsaraRiveDriote, #AsiasBestFemaleChef2018, and #LaoFoodMovement — a pretty obvious hint.
Bee spoke a bit on the finer points of Laos food, which she says bears some similarity to Thai cuisine, but is more subtle in flavor. She noted that there are over a dozen kinds of ginger used in the neighboring country, and over 1,000 herbs — many of which will feature heavily in the new offerings.
About Luang Prabang being an unconventional choice, she said, “We have known Ivan for many years, he’s been coming to our restaurant since the first location opened in Thong Lor and he knows a lot about food and a lot about Asian culture.” Much like at their current location in Bangkok’s swanky Gaysorn Village, it was important for Bee and Bailey to retain full creative control in their second location, something Scholte was amenable to.
Bee also personally enjoys the little town, calling it a “hidden gem.” Scholte has been in Luang Prabang, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its remarkable architecture, since 2001 and opened The Apsara in 2002. It was the first foreign-owned hotel and first boutique hotel in the then up-and-coming tourist destination. Still trendsetting 15 years later, the hotelier will now bring the first Michelin-caliber restaurant to the town.
His hotels — there are actually two of them located across the river from each other and comprised of 24 rooms in total — have a colonial vibe though the buildings, but are not actually old enough to be properly colonial. Decked out with traditional Laotian wooden furniture with pops of colorful silks, Scholte calls it “Indochine chic.”
However, Bee and Bailey are working with the hotel owner to do a complete overhaul of the kitchen and restaurant, with Bee hinting at a modern-looking space dressed in whites designed to seat about 45 people.
“Since they are coming from a Michelin-starred eatery in the heart of Bangkok at the Gaysorn, everything has to be perfect. The restaurant had to be redone, the kitchen had to be revamped, and all new dinner settings, everything top quality,” said Scholte, who we chatted with last week when he was in Bangkok working with Bee and Bailey on the new restaurant’s late-stage development details.
“There are high hopes with this project and a lot at stake. It’s Jason and Bee’s first project since winning the star,” he added. “But they have a huge following around Asia, in Hong Kong, and Singapore.”
So, could this opening make Luang Prabang a new destination for foodies in Asia? It might. Considering the popularity of Paste Bangkok and ease and affordability of travel to and accommodation in Luang Prabang (AirAsia direct round-trip flights from Bangkok start at THB2,590 (US$79) from Bangkok and rooms at The Apsara start at THB1,500 (US$45) per night) it’s not unthinkable that people will start making weekend trips just to try the new restaurant.
Paste at The Apsara
Projected opening: November 2018