Theme restaurants can be a tricky maneuver. The last time I dined at the Rainforest Café, the faux foliage, salty breeze, and animatronics rocked me until the food arrived and brought me back to reality. Such is life in childhood.
Khaluna does not promise such deception, nor gimmicks. First, it magically transports you to Southeast Asia’s most thunderous beach resorts, the types where everything looks saturated and enchantingly prepared for Instagram everywhere you turn.
Then it serves you cuisine that offers both exclusivity and pleasure – the kind that justifies multiple flights across continents and time zones.
You won’t have to pay (almost) for this extravaganza at Khâluna, which opened last fall; inside the restaurant, gigantic inverted salad bowls act as pendants, casting a honeyed glow over the white oak, shimmering quartz countertops, tropical-style rattan chairs, porcelain chopsticks, and its well-groomed, well-groomed clientele who won’t mind paying $25 for duck fried rice.
“Mamans Edina,” observes my dining companion, sure of his information based on whispers within said community. It’s definitely the youngest in the after-spin segment who are looking for the next “it” restaurant. And judging by what it takes to score a reservation, they seem to have found it.
Labeling Khâluna with that distinction would underestimate the efforts of its chef and owner, Ann Ahmed, who is dedicated to educating the Twin Cities about the nuances of food from her home country of Laos and beyond. Last year, Ahmed told me that when she opened her first restaurant, Lemongrass, in Brooklyn Park, nearby residents have repeatedly requested non-Thai dishes, like Kung Pao chicken, for years. When Lat14 arrived, some 13 years later, she woke up and performed dishes that are more reminiscent of her Lao heritage.
But it’s in Khâluna that Ahmed is in his element, finally accepting that she’s done enough to take Twin Citians on his journey. Yes, the Basil Wings, a Lat14 hit, make a loud and familiar reappearance. The dough breaks again. The spice stings like fire ants. And Ahmed always makes his secret spice blend at home. Yet the rest of its menu is filled with many less common dishes even in the Southeast Asian countries from which they are inspired. Some of them are emphatically direct; some subtle. Almost always they taste fresh, lively.
Its fruits certainly do, and they deserve your attention. In Ahmed’s deft hands, often honeyed and tannic tropical fruits like mango and pineapple are transformed into something ethereal.
Pineapple and green mango, cut into matchstick-thin strips, lend a sweet sweetness and appealing crunch to fluffy, chewy rice noodles. These are his pineapple noodles, but not quite as you know them: there are flakes of dried shrimp, as heady as anchovies; perfectly steamed fatty prawns; a hot coconut milk broth served at the table with just enough Thai chili peppers to boil.
Fruit makes another appearance alongside red dragon fruit, grapes and strawberries, cut into thumb-sized bite-size pieces, adorned with edible flowers, mint leaves, crushed peanuts and kissed with just enough of fish sauce to enjoy. It’s Salat Mak Mai, a kind of fruit salad, as pretty as a divine offering.
You’ll find a mango salad, along with apples, along with yet another dish — one of my favorites in Ahmed’s repertoire: whole fried snapper. Ahmed offers whole fish renditions in his restaurants; in Khâluna, the snapper is the most virtuous.
She spins the fish, cuts it into bite-size pieces, coats it in a light batter and frys it in oil until it rolls up before putting it back on the fried carcass, flared like a pirate ship, with coleslaw. She then lavishes it with a tamarind vinaigrette, which has enough acidity for a chemical peel (as it should). Everything is glorious, and not just in the context of its surroundings. Sure, you’ll find sweet and sour fish served at posh banquets in Southeast Asia, but few do it the way Ahmed does.
That’s the beauty of Ahmed’s philosophy. It’s like she discovers her favorite dishes, soaks up her twists, and serves them the way she likes. Never mind that these are dishes that many in the Twin Cities – myself included – are less familiar with.
Don’t forget how unexpectedly delicious they can be. Sakoo Sai Moo, a type of steamed dumpling made from a thick wrapper of tapioca pearls, is popular among street food stalls in Thailand. Ahmed improves it by adding two kinds of mushrooms (cremini and shiitake) and pistachios, in addition to the traditional peanuts. The dumplings are chewier than the staple, but less mushy and carry a trace of heat.
Longan, a type of lychee-like berry native to hot Asian climates, adds a little something extra to fried rice – a technique I’ve never encountered before. Its closest cousin, Kao Niao Piak Lumyai, uses the tropical fruit in sticky pudding-like rice called congee, thickened with coconut milk. Ahmed’s take is closer to an egg fried rice, and it’s airy and comforting. Don’t order your curries without it. Of the three, order the red curry, which combines a surprisingly chewy, crispy-skinned chicken breast and a lighter, more bubbly curry.
Not that his other curries aren’t outstanding. They can be, with a little pruning: a Massaman curry was more deeply flavored and whimsical than anything I’ve tried, but was also saltier than I can stand, even with rice. Gaeng Toon, or sour fish curry, a soothing and clean version of the southern Thai staple, would work better if the fish had been cooked more evenly.
You’re better off with his Duck Laab. Vast and majestic, it arrives thinly sliced and spread out on a platter to show off its pink centers and thin strips of skin, which manages to stay crisp despite being drizzled with the bright laab dressing. Here, the gesture is to eat some alone, others with sticky rice. And between bites, slip into a spoonful or two of its underrated jeows – notably mak len, a spicy Lao version of tomato salsa, but you have to eat it with rice to temper the heat.
I only wish I could recommend some of his other dishes with the same conviction. I liked the idea of Ahmed’s duck leg confit more than the dish itself, partly because the confit didn’t showcase the breed of duck (Rohan, de D’Artagnan) of the same way as his laab, and the pistachio-peanut crumble that sprinkled the skin was a visual treat but did little to impart any kind of nuttiness. Shrimp rolls may be ideal as a starter — plump cigars rolled in eggroll-like batter, nestled with shiso (shiny) and bound with thin, shiny rice paper — but they were crispy one night and soggy another. The samosas were fine – a required option to include on the menu – but forgettable. So was the duck fried rice, which tasted like a rushed amalgamation of chewy, chewy duck strips, red onion and aromatic but overcooked rice. And his Laksa, a curry noodle soup, had a bad taste that I couldn’t quite place.
Ordering carefully also pays off with the desserts, and they’re courtesy of pastry chef Katie Elsing. They present the kind of magic found in Michelin kitchens: creamy school, granitas and velvety ice cream. Her passion fruit cream is truly a treat, even if the promised lemongrass was faint, and while the jasmine also doesn’t show in the shortbread crumble that accompanies a spiced mango cake, it’s a work of art. edible art that belongs to itself. workshop.
Over time, I’m sure. More broadly, Khâluna has improved in the two months that I have been on my visits, and while there are tweaks and changes to be made, the guideline is clear: don’t wait.
Location: 4000 Lyndale Ave. S., Mpls., khaluna.com
Hours: 4pm-10pm Tue-Thu, 4pm-11pm Fri-Sat Store open from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. from Tuesday to Saturday.
Reservations: April reservations open March 10 at 10 a.m.; a handful still available for March.
Prices: Small plates $12-$21, appetizers $16-$36, desserts $5-$13.
Beverage program: Beverage director Trish Gavin’s inventive bar program includes a handful of craft cocktails ($11-$13) and a dozen stellar N/A offerings ($6-$9).
Tip: Like other restaurants, Khâluna has adopted a universal hospitality surcharge of 21%, which is added to the bill. Unlike other restaurants, the final bill also leaves room for tipping.
Car park: Street parking can be difficult to find. valet parking available for $8 (credit card only).