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Insects grace plate at Steveston fine dining restaurant

The chef at Baan Lao was inspired by her home country's cuisine in designing the menu.

A cricket and a syringe – these are items not usually found at a fine-dining establishment, but they made up part of the 12 courses served at a Thai restaurant in Steveston this weekend.

The meal, called “From the Fields of Thailand to the Shores of Canada,” along with wine and tea pairings were served at Baan Lao on Bayview Street as part of a “media night."

The cricket sat atop an appetizer and the syringe – inspired by the chef’s background in nursing – was used to infuse a palate cleanser of lemongrass, pandan and butterfly peas whereby it changes colour.

Baan Lao had invited a group of people who work in the media, including the Richmond News, for a complimentary dinner.

While this reporter is not a food critic, needless to say the menu, worth $290 plus wine pairings at $95, offered some delightful surprises for the palate.

From the “Rice Cracker with Tomato Thai Chilli” – which was topped with a cricket - to “Chef Nutcha’s Childhood Memories” – a dessert resembling a bonzai-sized garden – the meal was all about blending flavours with exquisite presentation.

The Amuse Bouche, the rice cracker with chilli, consists of items from chef Nutcha Phanthoupheng’s rice farm at home, including the hand-roasted insects that top the appetizer.

This might be a cricket, grasshopper, silk worm larvae or a forest scorpion, insects that were a regular source of protein for her family.

The main course of the meal is lobster, which is flown on Fridays from Nova Scotia.

Phanthoupheng, who grew up in Thailand and worked as a cancer nurse, has drawn on her childhood experiences to create the menu infused with inspiration from living in Canada.

The restaurant has limited seating – its maximum capacity is 24 but often they don’t serve even that many people per meal – and reservations need to be made two days in advance.

“It’s not about going after the mass public, it’s about going after refinement and artistry of Thai culinary experience,” Phanthoupheng told the News through an interpreter.

She trained with a Michelin-star chef who cooked for the Thai royal family, and the atmosphere of the restaurant reflects a regal quality – far from Thai street food.

Phanthoupheng said she’s “passionate” about cooking, but she also wants to create an atmosphere that inspires and elevates fine dining in the Lower Mainland.

Since opening, she has noticed other restaurants following the lead of Baan Lao, serving a set menu and adding more decorative elements to their menu items.

“We love it because we opened everyone’s eyes,” Phanthoupheng explained.

The current menu of Baan Lao is inspired by Phanthoupheng’s home region, but, in January, they will shut down the restaurant to tour different regions of Thailand, hoping to find inspiration for other menu items.

Michelin buzz in Lower Mainland

There has been some recent buzz about Michelin ratings coming to restaurants in the Lower Mainland, and their guide is expected in the fall.

Baan Lao has been mentioned in the media as one of the restaurants that could be rated in the prestigious Michelin Guide.

Michelin awards one, two or three stars to restaurants – but getting just one star is already meaningful. Two or more stars indicates the restaurant is worth travelling to for a meal.

There is also a Michelin green star, given to restaurants that are “leaders in sustainable gastronomy,” according to a recent press release.

The Saturday menu, “From the Fields of Thailand to the Shores of Canada” is served at 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. and reservations close two days before – to give time for the restaurant to order lobster from the east coast.

On Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday evenings, the restaurant serves another set menu called "A Taste of Baan Lao" with three seatings per night.