There is a new face in old Kingston, taking up residence where the beloved Banana Leaf restaurant left a vacant spot earlier this year on Kennedy Street.
The hint to the inspiration behind the restaurant greets you at the front door. It is a black and white picture; the very same photo appears on the first page of the menu. It is of chef and owner Aiden Xindavong’s beloved grandmother, Thongxoun.
Born in Laos, Aiden has strong memories of spending time with his grandmother in her hometown of Champi. The small village along the Xadone River in the Champasak Province was the backdrop to a childhood of sourcing the freshest of produce from the family farm and grilling meals over a charcoal fire.
Together with wife and business partner Bianca Fong, they are evoking Aiden’s youth and longing for a taste of home. At the same time, they are honouring Grandmother Thongxoun with the restaurant name and recreating some of her recipes.
Dark and moody inside with low lights and candles, the interior of the couples’ new venture is simple and warm. The menu is designed to share and is broken up into starters, soups, main dishes, curries, hot wok items, noodles and rice with options going beyond the border of Laos cuisine and featuring Thai dishes as well.
For dinner on a recent visit, I opt for a taste of Aiden’s nostalgia and order all the items with the word Grandma in it. First up is a starter, Grandma’s Signature Barramundi Fish Cakes. Four plump golden fried fish cakes hit the table with sweet chilli and cucumber dipping sauce. Generously portioned minced fish is mixed with whole herbs and chilli you can taste and see in every bite. It is spicy and utterly delightful dunked into the sauce.
Next is pure nourishment in the form of Tom Zaap, described as Grandma’s homemade hot and sour pork rib soup with a blend of fresh lemongrass, galangals, lime, tamarind and herbs. A good hearty soup is a balm for my soul, and this was a wholesome bowl full of fresh ingredients that soothe and excite me at the same time. The tender pork rib meat was ready to fall off the bone and combined magically with the puckering effect of the tamarind along with the spiciness of the chillies.
To finish, a serve of sticky rice and Grandma’s Free-Range Chicken, marinated in lemongrass, fresh herbs, and a touch of anchovies. It is cooked over the fire and served with the distinctive marks and smell of the grill.
Of all the dishes on the menu, this one is Aiden’s favourite and the greatest homage to his childhood memories. Starting with the main ingredient itself, he remembers his grandmother sourcing her own free-range chicken from her backyard farm and then methodically preparing the marinade on the mortar and pestle. It is a lovely simple satisfying dish served rustically on a wooden board with a crunchy papaya salad.
Champi is located at 17 Kennedy Street, Kingston. It’s open from Tuesday to Sunday for dinner from 5:30 pm.