There is something intoxicating about wrestlers: the squirt hockey player training for the NHL, the startup entrepreneur evolving into the Fortune 500, the suburban restaurateur dreaming of the big city.
Khaluna is the fulfillment of that dream for Ann Ahmed.
Born in Laos and living in a Thai refugee camp until the age of 4, Ahmed was sponsored, along with her family, to come to Minnesota. She grew up in her uncle’s restaurant, moved to California, and returned home in 2005 to buy a restaurant in a Brooklyn Park mall. Lemon Grass Thai Cuisine slowly built a loyal following who realized something special was happening. Ahmed has spent a decade defining his signature style: traditional Southeast Asian flavors that have gone up in 11.
Then she burst onto the food scene in 2018 after converting a former Perkins restaurant in Golden Valley to the sleek Lat 14, where the sleek room was regularly overshadowed by dishes with a personality as big as hers. After the COVID-19 vaccines rolled out, Ahmed and her husband bought a sports bar in southern Minneapolis, gutted it, and are now ready to compete with the culinary heavyweights with Khâluna.
And he is competing. Khâluna ticks all the boxes: a beautiful piece, Instagram-worthy veneer, and flavor combinations you’ll think about long after you’ve taken that hard-to-get reservation.
Complex simplicity is a theme you’ll see throughout the menu. Start with the shrimp rolls, delicately prepared egg rolls wrapped in mint and herbs inside spring roll wrappers that deliver a punch of purple shiso and a crunch of chopped jicama. Or take a rewarding risk and try the tapioca balls filled with shiitake and crimini mushrooms in a peanut sauce. Sakoo is Thai street food, and Ahmed makes a bite that is as tasty as it is beautiful.
If you’re looking to categorize Ahmed Khâluna, don’t. “People always want to put me in a box. Do not do that ! Don’t put me in a box, ”she told me recently. Khâluna, like Lat 14, is an extension of Ahmed’s unique education. She is not a Laotian chief; she is a chief from Minnesota influenced by her life in california, her travels around the world and her marriage to a muslim.
“I create a solid foundation for my food, and that’s me as a person. You just found out who I have been and who I have met, ”she said.
This foundation is most evident in Ahmed’s favorite dish on the menu, Bucatini Talay. It looks like a beef stew, but it’s tom yum made with shrimp, roasted peppers and garlic, all topped with squid, scallops and fish roe. I would love to see more substantial scallop pieces, but the surprising combination of flavors made me want this dish.
Don’t miss the Massaman curry, which dates back to Thailand (with Indian, Malaysian and Muslim influences) a combination of coconut milk, lemongrass, cardamom and cinnamon. It warms, comforts, and is topped with toasted hazelnuts and truly delicious ribs from local Peterson Farms.
If you are looking for more delicate dishes, the duck laab is absolutely gorgeous with its thin slices of aged duck breast served with a spicy lemongrass and cucumber coleslaw. Gaeng toon is a bit like fish soup. It’s supposed to have a delicate touch of spice to contrast with a sour curry, but unfortunately when we visited it was extremely spicy. This is the kind of problem that a newly opened restaurant has to solve.
I won’t tell you not to order Rainbow Rice, the winner of the beauty contest that is the Khâluna menu. A perfectly formed tower of blue rice arrives on your plate, surrounded by julienned carrots, red peppers, grapefruit and mango. It’s a rainbow of colors that transforms when you squeeze lime on blue rice, as the acid turns it purple. It’s cool, but it’s basically a $ 21 rice bowl. It might be worth it for guaranteed likes on Instagram.
I would instantly place the cocktails and soft drinks among the best in town. Bar manager Trish Gavin has a knack for creating the tastiest, most interesting tonics I’ve ever had. Pair the spicy cardamom tonic with Japanese gin or whiskey and the delicately fruity tonic with plantation pineapple rum. The saffron-infused gin martini is a revelation while the non-alcoholic drinks include yogurt-based lassi (the ginger one is fresh) and layered sparkling waters flavored with ginseng and mint, or jasmine and chamomile. .
This is fine Asian cuisine, prepared with precision in an environment worth paying for. The interior is magnificent. It’s about as far from the old Harriet’s Inn as you can imagine. Cream and slate tones are on display throughout, punctuated by enormous handcrafted plywood light fixtures that are as large in diameter as Chef Ahmed’s ambition.
“We gave the suburbs an Asian dining experience that was beyond their limits,” said Ahmed. But everyone said to him, “You must be in Minneapolis, your food belongs in Minneapolis.”
Well, Minneapolis, Ann Ahmed has come.
Or: 4000 Lyndale Ave S., Minneapolis
Reservations: No appointment at the bar, Reservations required
Car park: Small adjacent lot, free valet parking