Three years on, Zaab looks a little different than when it first opened in 2016. Gone are the corrugated iron panels and the hanging beer signs that gave it that backpacker bar vibe. The wooden bar is now a sleek copper finish and the stools so reminiscent of street food stalls have been replaced by more comfortable plush grey chairs. It's still definitely Asian-influenced but a bit more Braddon, still a little grungy but a lot more refined these days.
On a cold Canberra night, it's warm and welcoming behind the heavy wooden door. The comforting smell of steamed rice and Asian herbs linger in the air. Zaab is busy even early on a weekday night; families are huddled around tables that are overflowing with food and friends catch up for a drink at the along the bar.
Cocktails dominate the drinks menu, negronis in particular. There are four seasonal ones on offer, and while the winter spice and autumn smoked negroni sound grand, they're probably not great choices for me as the designated driver. There's also a short offering of wines - three each in white and red - and a good mix of Asian and craft beers to choose from.
The food is Lao-Thai and there's a distinct focus on traditional, family-friendly style fare. The prices seem very fair here, with nothing more than $28. For those with decision paralysis, there are also two banquet options - Zaab classic $49 and Zaab ultimate experience $59.
With seven sections on the menu, we're a little overwhelmed by the choices. It's hard to know how big the dishes are or how many dishes to order with menu sections that offer no indication of size. The waiter makes a few suggestions, and we run with them.
Son-in-law eggs ($10) are a good start - deep fried and with still runny yolks. The tamarind dressing borders on the sweet, but that could just be personal preference.
The Lao sausages ($16) are excellent. A traditionally fermented sausage filled with lemongrass and studded with chunks of fat, it's herby, spicy and very moreish. The side of chilli, shredded ginger and peanuts add freshness and crunch. There's a lot to be said for authentic, home-style food from this region and this doesn't disappoint. It takes me right back to being in Asia where I ate my weight in these.
Somehow the curry soft shell crab ($25) manages to remain crispy under all the curry. The crab is topped with vegetables tossed in a semi dry curry sauce, spicy but not overly heavy on the chilli.
Even though I'm feeling rather full, the whole barramundi at the neighbouring table is quite the sight, deep fried and topped with mango and vegetables. I find myself with a pronounced case of food envy - you know when you wish you'd ordered what other diners have? I'm almost tempted to order one, but reason wins this time around.
Listed as a Zaab recommendation, the lemongrass and turmeric grilled charcoal chicken (half $18, whole $30) is served with tangy pickled vegetables, sweet chilli and a tangy green dipping sauce. The chicken is aromatic, well-cooked and with a good hit of spice.
Thai-style chargrilled steak or crying tiger on the menu ($16) is lightly seared and served carpaccio style. It's not quite there flavour-wise, missing the charcoal grill aroma that is the hallmark of this dish.
The only minor question mark of the night is the duck larb stack ($12). While it is interesting - layers of fried won ton skins alternating with tangy duck larb, it's not particularly well executed in this instance - the duck is a little gamey and not properly seasoned.
I can't help but be distracted by the sandy finish on the individual share plates. It makes for a slightly jarring eating experience, the grating sound of cutlery moving across the plate punctuating the conversation.
Service is also a little slow with only two people on the floor. It's not that we feel neglected but while the wait staff are quick to top up wine glasses, we have to constantly ask the wait staff when we want to order, when we would like to see dessert menus and when we would like to get the bill.
Simple but elegant, the rose and coconut panna cotta ($12) is light with clean, bright flavours. It's not a panna cotta exactly, more of a lightly set jelly in two layers - on the bottom young coconut, and on the top coconut cream and rose. It's texturally accentuated by little pieces of coconut, and freeze-dried raspberries add a welcome tartness.
Zaab knows that it doesn't need to try to reinvent the wheel, and that's a good thing. It's well-priced, traditional Lao-Thai cooking - better than your average cheap and cheerful joint and the polished, trendy setting is a nice bonus. It's family-friendly, casual and authentic, a welcome addition to the Braddon dining scene that is sometimes perhaps just a little too happening for a lazy night out.
Address: 2/9 Lonsdale Street, Braddon
Phone: 6156 5638
Owner: Becky Khanthavongsa
Chefs: Sangkeo Khanthavongsa and Ton Supwanakit
Hours: 5pm-late, seven days
Wheelchair access: Yes
Vegetarian: A few good options
Noise: Not a problem