Restaurant review: Khâluna in Minneapolis a first-class trip to the flavors of Southeast Asia

Themed restaurants can be a tricky maneuver. The last time I dined at one, the Rainforest Café, the faux foliage, saline breeze and animatronics lulled me until the food arrived and snapped me back into reality. Such is life in childhood.

Khaluna promises no such deception, nor gimmicks. First it magically transports you to the toniest beachside resorts in Southeast Asia, the types where everything looks saturated and enchantingly primed for Instagram everywhere you turn.

Then it serves you food that delivers on both exclusivity and pleasure — the kind that justifies multiple flights across continents and time zones.

You won’t have to pay (nearly) this extravagantly at Khâluna, which opened last fall; inside the restaurant, gigantic, inverted salad bowls double as pendants, casting a honeyed glow on the white oak, glistening quartz countertops, tropically styled rattan chairs, porcelainlike chopsticks and its well heeled, expensively coifed clientele who won’t mind paying $25 for duck fried rice.

“Edina moms,” my dining companion observes, confident of his intel based on whispers among said community. Certainly they are the younger, après-spin segment who are looking for the next “it” restaurant. And judging from what it takes to score a reservation, they seem to have found it.

To label Khâluna by this accolade would understate the efforts of its chef and owner, Ann Ahmed, who is devoted to educating the Twin Cities on the nuances of food from her home country, Laos, and beyond. Last year, Ahmed told me that when she opened her first restaurant, Lemon Grass, in Brooklyn Park, nearby residents repeatedly requested non-Thai dishes, like Kung Pao Chicken, for years. When Lat14 came along, some 13 years later, she wisened up and executed fare more reminiscent of her Laotian heritage.

But it’s at Khâluna where Ahmed is in every element, finally accepting that she’s done enough to bring Twin Citians along in her journey. Yes, the Basil Wings, a Lat14 hit, make a loud, familiar reappearance. The battery still shatters. The spice tingles like fire ants. And Ahmed still makes her secret spice mix at home. Yet the rest of her menu is filled with many dishes less common even in the Southeast Asian countries by which they are inspired. Some of these are emphatically forthright; some subtle. Almost always, they taste fresh, alive.

Her fruits certainly do, and they warrant your attention. In Ahmed’s deft hands, the often cloying and tannic tropical fruits, like mango and pineapple, transform into something ethereal.

Pineapple and green mango, sliced ​​into strips as thin as matchsticks, lend mild sweetness and an appealing crunch to soft, chewy rice noodles. These are her Pineapple Noodles, but not quite as you know them: There are dried shrimp flakes, as heady as anchovies; fat prawns, perfectly steamed; a warm, coconut milk broth served tableside with just enough Thai chiles to seethe.

The fruits make another appearance alongside red dragon fruit, grapes and strawberries, cut into thumb-sized bites, adorned with edible flowers, mint leaves, crushed peanut and kissed with just enough fish sauce to savor. This is Salat Mak Mai, a kind of fruit salad, as pretty as a deity offering.

You’ll find a slaw of the mango, as well as apple, with yet another dish — among my favorite in Ahmed’s repertoire: whole fried red snapper. Ahmed has renditions of whole fish across her restaurants; at Khâluna, snapper is at its most virtuous.

She fillets the fish, cuts them into bite-size pieces, coats them in light batter, and fries them in oil until they curl before arranging them back on top of the fried carcass, splayed like a pirate ship, along with the slaw. She then lavishes it with tamarind-heavy vinaigrette, which has enough acidity for a chemical peel (as it should). It’s all glorious, and not just in the context of its environment. Sure, you’ll find sweet and sour fish served at ritzy banquets in Southeast Asia, but few do it justice the way Ahmed does.

That is the beauty of Ahmed’s philosophy. It’s as if she discovers her favorite dishes, imbues her twists, and serves them however she she likes. Never mind that these are dishes that many in the Twin Cities — myself included — are less familiar with.

Do mind how unexpectedly delightful they can be. Sakoo Sai Moo, a type of steamed dumpling made with a thick, tapioca-pearl wrapper, is popular among street food stalls in Thailand. Ahmed improves on 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 doughy, and carry a trace of heat.

Longan, a type of lychee-like berry native to warm climates in Asia, adds an extra something to fried rice — a technique I’ve never encountered before. Its closest cousin, Kao Niao Piak Lumyai, uses the tropical fruit in sticky, puddinglike 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 an unexpectedly moist, crisp-skinned chicken breast and a lighter, brothier curry.

Not that every other curries aren’t noteworthy. They can be, with some pruning: a Massaman curry was more deeply flavored and fanciful than any I’ve tried but was also saltier than I can handle, even with rice. Gaeng Toon, or sour fish curry, a soothing, clean take on the Southern Thai staple, would work better had the fish been more evenly cooked.

You are better off with her Duck Laab. Sprawling and majestic, it arrives thinly sliced ​​and fanned out on a platter to show off its rosy centers and thin strips of skin, which manages to remain crisp despite being doused in the vivid laab dressing. Here, the move is to eat some alone, some with her sticky rice. And in between bites, sneak in a spoonful or two of her underrated jeows — notably the mak len, a spicy Laotian take on tomato salsa, but you must eat it with the rice to temper the heat.

I only wish I could recommend some of her other dishes with equal conviction. I liked the idea of ​​Ahmed’s confit duck leg more than the dish itself, in part because the confit didn’t showcase the breed of the duck (Rohan, from D’Artagnan) in the same way her laab did, and the pistachio-peanut crumble which dotted the skin was a visual treat but did little to impart any kind of nuttiness. Shrimp rolls can be ideal as a starter — plump cigars rolled in an eggroll-type batter, nestled with some shiso (brilliant) and bound with thin glossy rice paper — but they were crunchy one night and soggy another. Samosas were fine — a requisite option to include on the menu — but forgettable. So, too, was the duck fried rice, which felt like a hasty amalgam of rubbery, jerky-like strips of duck, red onion and aromatic but overcooked rice. And her Laksa, a curry noodle soup, had an off flavor that I could n’t quite place.

Ordering carefully is sure to pay off with desserts, too, and they come courtesy of pastry chef Katie Elsing. They exhibit the kind of wizardry found in Michelin kitchens: textbook cremeux, granitas and velvety ice creams. Her passion fruit cremeux really is a treat, though the promised lemongrass was faint, and while jasmine doesn’t come through, either, in the shortbread crumble that accompanies a spiced mango cake, wholly it’s a work of edible art that belongs in its own atelier

In time, I’m sure it will. More broadly, Khâluna has improved in the two-month span when I made my visits, and while there are nitpicks and changes to be made, the directive is clear: Don’t wait.

Khaluna

⋆⋆⋆ Excellent

Location: 4000 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls., khaluna.com

Hours: 4-10 pm Tue.-Thu., 4-11 pm Fri.-Sat. Retail shop open 1-9 pm Tue.-Sat.

Reservations: April reservations open March 10 at 10 am; a handful still available for March.

Prices: Small plates $12-$21, entrees $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).

Tips: Like other restaurants, Khâluna has adopted a 21% universal hospitality surcharge, which is added to the bill. Unlike other restaurants, the final bill also leaves room for a tip.

Parking: Street parking can be tough to find; valet parking available for $8 (credit card only).

Jon Cheng is the Star Tribune’s restaurant critic. Reach him at jon.cheng@startribune.com or follow him at @intrepid_glutton.

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