Southeast Asia is full of delicious produce, yet it is a sad reality that most Southeast Asian countries do not reap the benefits and continue to live in poverty. To see people making a conscious effort to do something about this is really refreshing. Bolaven, a new Indochinese café in Wan Chai, is one example of such an effort.
The owner of Bolaven, Sam Say, was born in Laos, but moved to Canada as a refugee at a young age with his family and has lived in Hong Kong for the past 21 years. Seven years ago, he made the decision to go back to Laos and was outraged by the sheer poverty that consumes his native country. He noticed that the conditions in Southern Laos were perfect for farming: there’s plenty of rain, a cool climate, volcanic, nutrient-rich soil, yet there wasn’t the know-how in local farmers to make a success of it and lift them out of poverty.
Sam therefore decided to set up Bolaven Farms, a 67-hectare coffee plantation, whose main aim is to teach local people to become successful coffee farmers, so that within two to three years, these people can become landowners and even set up their own farms, thus spreading the know-how all over the country in an attempt to alleviate extreme poverty.
The restaurant in Wan Chai is a very casual, brightly lit canteen sort of place. Photos of smiling Laotian kids adorn the walls, whilst the word Laos is continuously painted across the counter in big, bright letters, reminding the customers of the story behind the place.
So, the story is heart-warming, but is the food? Having met Sam a week prior to my trip to Bolaven and heard his fascinating story, I had high hopes that his Indochinese cuisine would be equally as remarkable, but unfortunately I left feeling a little underwhelmed.
We began with the Million Elephant Larb, a minced pork salad served with lettuce. This is normally one of my favourite Southeast Asian dishes, yet this one lacked flavour and the portion size was upsettingly small. Had there been a little more chilli and a squeeze more lime, plus perhaps double the quantity, this dish would have won our hearts.
The BBQ pork rice paper rolls were unfortunately rather bland and had a homemade quality to them that you would not expect from a restaurant specialising in Indochinese cuisine.
Out of the starters, the grilled beef salad fared much better, even though some pieces of beef were a little on the chewy side. The fresh flavours were much more prominent here, however, intensified by the slices of red onion.
If you have to order one dish and one dish only at Bolaven, definitely make it the pho with beef shank, beef tenderloin and Vietnamese sausage. Where the first two dishes were lacking in flavour, this pho absolutely made up for it. The broth was wonderfully flavoursome, suggesting it had been simmering for hours, and the meat was lovely and tender.
Despite not really reflecting its name, the spaghetti tom yum goong also hit a high note for us. Having asked for it extra spicy, this dish was full of flavour and carried a decent punch. Perhaps the extra spice outweighed the tom yum flavour, however, as there was no hint of sourness normally associated with a tom yum, yet if we ignored the name, it was tasty either way!
For dessert, the banofee in a cup sounded too good to resist. Unfortunately, however, although the banana, toffee and cream ratio worked, the biscuity crumble seemed like it had been subjected to the affects of Hong Kong’s humidity: it was soggy and lacked that satisfying crunch.
Of course Bolaven sells coffee from the Laotian farm, either by the cup or by the bag. Not being a coffee person myself, I can’t comment on this, although I have heard good things about it.
Prices at Bolaven were a little surprising for what it was, with the total bill amounting to around $550 – quite a lot given the canteen-like setting and supposedly street food. I debated whether to give Bolaven an ‘ooh’ or an ‘oooh’ rating, and decided on the latter, due to the fact that Bolaven has the right idea to be a success, backed by the touching story behind it. In truth there are still a few missing pieces to allow this place to stick around, yet I really hope the kinks can be ironed out to give it a chance to succeed and simultaneously help the Laotian people.
G/F, 239A Jaffe Road
Tel: +852 2555 2603