Review

Tantalizing tastes of Laos will leave a smile on your face

CorrespondentJanuary 24, 2013 

  • Bida Manda 222 S. Blount St., Raleigh 919-829-9999 bidamanda.com Cuisine: Laotian Rating: **** Prices: $$ Atmosphere: contemporary, exotic, warmly inviting Noise level: moderate Service: knowledgeable and enthusiastic Recommended: herb salad, lettuce wraps, green papaya salad, steamed catfish, pork belly soup, larb Open: Lunch Monday-Friday, dinner Monday-Saturday. Reservations: recommended, especially on weekends Other: full bar; accommodates children; good vegetarian selection; parking on street and in garage. The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: *  *  *  *  *  Extraordinary *  *  *  *  Excellent. *  *  *  Above average. *  *  Average. *  Fair. The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

Entering Bida Manda, your eyes are drawn upward to a pair of life-size, full-length black and white portraits suspended above the host stand. Dressed in ceremonial Laotian wedding costumes, the couple set a suitably exotic tone for a restaurant specializing in a cuisine that many Americans have never tasted.

Meanwhile, their smiles seem to say, “Don’t worry, you’re going to enjoy the experience.”

And indeed you will. Walls veneered in what you at first take to be bamboo, but turn out to be fallen branches scavenged from the North Carolina mountains, set a warmly inviting tone that blurs the line between exotic and familiar. Vibrant panels depicting saffron-clad Buddhist monks, lit by the glow of vintage chandeliers and retro filament bulbs, reinforce the theme.

The food echoes this tantalizing tapestry of East and West, from the complimentary prawn chips that arrive soon after you’re seated to the digestif of freshly squeezed lemon and lime juices sweetened with simple syrup that’s delivered with your check.

In between, the menu represents the combined contributions of Bida Manda’s owners and its executive chef. Interwoven throughout the two distinctly different styles is a thread of Laotian pedigree.

Chef Lon Bounsanga was born in Laos, but his culinary experience is primarily in Western fine dining restaurants (including, most recently, Carolina Country Club). The chef’s experience is reflected in artfully presented contemporary riffs on Laotian cuisine.

Among several dainty presentations on the appetizer list, crispy rice lettuce wraps stand out for their ample, shareable portion. More typical is the summer roll, a translucent wrapper filled with a colorful patchwork of fresh herbs and vegetables, cut into segments resembling a sushi roll, and presented on a slate slab with a peanut dipping sauce.

Another starter featuring an Anaheim pepper, stuffed with house-made herbed Lao sausage and set on a plate garnished with the stem, is likewise fetching. So are lightly battered halves of soft shell crab, flanked by dabs of cilantro lime pesto on a rectangular platter.

The same elongated platter serves as a canvas for dessert samplers that are as charming to the eye as to the palate. A composition pairing a candied orange macaroon and a miniature pecan cheesecake with a Thai tea-scented caramel, say. Or a trio of mango sorbet, apricot cobbler and coconut custard in a delicate pastry cup.

The chef is just as adept at rendering the authentic recipes contributed by brother-and-sister owners Vansana and Vanvisa Nolintha to the offering. Many of these are childhood favorites, made by their mother in their hometown of Luang Prabang before the young siblings came to America to study.

Given Laos’ location between Thailand and Vietnam, it isn’t surprising that a number of items on Bida Manda’s menu bear more than a passing resemblance to dishes of those Southeast Asian cultures.

Differences are often subtle to the non-native palate, but generally speaking, Laotian flavors tend to be a little earthier, a little less bright than those of their neighbors.

Manda’s herb salad is a medley of vermicelli noodles, crispy spring rolls, tempura eggplant, cucumber, carrot, cilantro and mint that will ring a bell for fans of Vietnamese cuisine. It’s worth the small upcharge to add grilled pork neck (don’t be dissuaded by the description) or shrimp.

Fans of the Thai minced meat dish, larb, will find two versions of it here: duck (which you can make more authentically earthy with the optional addition of liver and gizzard) and beef. Both can be made as mild or as spicy as you like (be advised that “Lao hot” is incendiary), and both are served with the sticky rice that is the customary accompaniment. If you want to go all in on authenticity, tear off bits of the rice and use them to convey the larb to your salivating mouth.

Green papaya salad also comes with sticky rice, and can be paired with your choice of plate companions, from lemongrass chicken to grilled flatiron steak. A splash of tamarind in the dressing distinguishes the salad from its Thai cousin.

Crispy pork belly soup is in the family of meal-in-a-bowl noodle soups popular across Asia (along with pho, which Bida Manda also offers but I’ve yet to try). A coconut curry broth riddled with minced pork, fresh vegetables and fragrant herbs, it’s crowned with thick slices of belly fried crisp as bacon. The fact that Mom was making this one long before pork belly got trendy hasn’t prevented local foodies from being drawn to it like iron filings to a magnet.

You can count me among their number. If forced to pick a single favorite dish at Bida Manda, though, I’d have to go with the catfish steamed in a banana leaf. The bundle is tucked inside a bamboo steamer basket in a presentation reminiscent of a dim sum house. But here, the sticky rice is perfumed with dill and lemongrass (not to mention the banana leaf’s fragrant contribution), and spangled with asparagus, red pepper and jade green hemispheres of Lao eggplant.

And that’s just the supporting cast. The star is North Carolina catfish filet, so pristinely sweet it won over my wife, a lifelong avoider of catfish; so tender it compels me to break a cardinal restaurant critic rule by using the term “melts-in-your-mouth.”

Disappointments - a lunchtime baguette (think Laotian banh mi) with too much bread, too little filling; chairs that sacrifice comfort for style - are commendably few for a first-time venture.

Bar manager Jordan Hester, who initially came from Fox Liquor bar to help with the startup and liked the place so much he decided to stay (and who, incidentally, has created one of the area’s premier cocktail offerings), credits the restaurant’s success to the passion of its owners for sharing their heritage.

“I think of Bida Manda as a love letter to their parents,” Hester says. Indeed, the restaurant’s name is ceremonial Sanskrit for “father” and “mother.”

And those life-size portraits over the host stand? Vansana and Vanvisa Nolintha’s parents on their wedding day in 1980. According to Hester, they really aren’t supposed to be smiling. It’s a formal portrait, and tradition dictates that the subjects should look serious. The smiles - his restrained, hers broad - were provoked by her friends, teasing them from out of camera range.

Proper or not, at Bida Manda the smiles are contagious.

ggcox@bellsouth.net or blogs@newsobserver.com/mouthful

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