Tres chic dining in city that favours the French

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 February, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 February, 1993, 12:00am

THE smell of freshly brewed coffee drifts out from the small shack in the muddy market, where fruit and vegetable sellers squat on planks behind piles of shiny purple aubergines, bright red chillies and bunches of aromatic mint. An old man hawks live frogs from wicker baskets as shoppers amble by, laden down with bags bursting with French baguettes.

With its well-stocked markets, chic French restaurants, cake shops, old Russian hang-outs, Indian vegetarian food and beer gardens, Vientiane belies its image as the sleepy capital of a land-locked Communist backwater in Asia. It has a surprising wealth of gastronomic delights (the only things missing are American-style fast-food joints - and long may it remain that way. Who needs anything faster than a baguette stuffed with Lao pate served from a street stall?).

The French influence is, not surprisingly, the strongest, even 40 years after the end of colonial rule. In a part of the world where rice and tea are staples, Laotians determinedly stick to the tradition of French baguettes for breakfast, eaten alongsidecafe au lait. Baguettes from Vientiane are said to be the best; the Lao Aviation flight to the northern town of Luang Prabang is crowded with locals carrying full bags of loaves to delight their country cousins.

Laotians seem to have inherited from the French a love not just of food, but of the ambience in which it should be served. While pots of French coffee bubble away on charcoal fires in even the simplest food stall, the food of the former colonial power can also be enjoyed in several smarter restaurants.

Nam Phou, with its tiled floors, glass-topped tables, taped French music and Laotian artefacts is as chic as any Parisian brasseries. Out of the price range of all but the most well-connected Laos, Hongkongers will nevertheless find it a bargain: a three-course meal for two including steaks and a bottle of Cote du Rhone costs less than US$45 (HK$350) - credit cards accepted.

Other venues to enjoy surprisingly good cuts of meat and French favourites such as onion soup and patronised by embassy staff and aid workers are the Souriya, owned by a Lao princess, and the shabby but even cheaper Santisouk.

You won't lack for variety in Vientiane. There's a smart Italian restaurant called L'Opera in Fountain Square, selling pasta, pizza, divine chocolate mousse and a huge selection of ice cream. You used to be able to sip a drink at an open-air cafe in thesquare run by a Yugoslav, or whatever else he calls himself these days, but it closed down a couple of months ago - rumours of ''trouble with the government'', or ''jealousy of surrounding restaurants'' abound in both the local and expat community.

There are even two Indian restaurants (there's a community of Indians and Pakistanis, running clothing and jewellery shops - enough of them to organise games of cricket). The Noor Jahan serves vegetarian thalis and dishes from the south of India including the paper thin pancake masala dosa, and is a favourite backpackers' haunt.

With all this on offer, it is no wonder Russian workers wept when the order came from Moscow to return home a couple of years ago. The Han Kin Deum Mixay (literally translated as the Mixay food and drink shop), a large shack overlooking the Mekong, is sometimes still referred to as the Russian Tea House, though the preferred tipple is draught Lao Lion beer.

It was a favourite with Soviets who packed the riverside tables at sunset, and remains a popular haunt for expatriates from other countries, though our guide pointed out a man he believed to be a lone Russian, nursing a jug of draught beer and gazing wistfully across the muddy waters of the wide river.

Lao food is similar to Thai, with a bit of Chinese thrown in. In Luang Prabang, Mr Boualavanh opened his Khem Kharn Food Garden a year ago where he serves laap, a traditional Lao concoction of beef, chicken or fish pureed with lime juice, garlic, powdered rice, onions and chillies.

You can either spoon a small amount of the dark green paste on to lettuce leaves, add a sprig of mint, and a tiny red chilli if you are brave enough (have an ice-cold glass of Lao beer ready in case of emergency), and simply pop it in your mouth, or alternatively, scoop it up with a ball of sticky rice.

Particularly welcome if you've ordered your laap ''maak phet'' (hot and spicy), is the refreshing plate of cantaloupe melon served as dessert.

Mekong fish appears on menus throughout Laos, though Mr Boualavanh explains that in this part of the country the fish are small and relatively expensive, while the best are to be found in Vientiane. Fermented freshwater fish is used to make paa daek, a strong sauce similar to the Vietnamese nuoc cham.

When you've had your share of laap , there's time to sit back under the thatch awning overlooking the Nam Khan just before it turns a bend and flows into the mighty Mekong. Watch small boys splash in the water below as a long boat glides past and conical-hatted farmers tend to crops on the far bank. Order another glass of Lion beer, or a cup of coffee.

Sante says Mr Boualavanh, in his best schoolboy French.