Yes, Please

Duck Laab. Photos by Mike Hnida
Duck Laab. Photos by Mike Hnida

Khaluna means ‘please’ in her native tongue, explains chef/owner Ann Ahmed, an émigrée from Laos. It’s also a common invocation desperate foodies employ in groveling for a table in her so-named South Minneapolis restaurant (her third, and most ambitious, by the way). Khaluna-the-restaurant also ranks among the elite quartet of local kitchens nominated as finalists for the Best: Midwest title in this year’s James Beard awards.

If this were a Miss America pageant, the place would win on looks alone. The spacious seating area gathers pods of cane-backed chairs around blond tabletops under an industrial ceiling whose summery white lanterns warm an almost tropical setting. There’s also a row of barstools for hopeful walk-ins.

The extensive and thoughtful drinks menu sends a tropical vibe, too. inviting flavors, from jackfruit to ginger, into the cocktail scene as well as beers designed to marry Asian flavors and non-alcohol sippers as unique and well-conceived as their spirited companions.

But let’s get to the food. The menu leads off with a quintet of small plates ($15 Range) meant for sharing, such as our order of shrimp rolls. They look like something from the Walker gift shop rather than a homey kitchen, with purple shiso leaves glowing through their translucent rice paper wrappers. Hints of mint and cilantro emerge from the white paste within, which, I guess, is composed of ground shrimp, but if so, their flavor is elusive. A pineapple hoisin dipper abets the composition.

We also summoned the kitchen’s samosas, whose deftly crisped wrappers contain—the menu promises—ground chicken (along with mashed potato and hints of chili) but again, I couldn’t prove it by my palate. Run these bundles through a partnering tamarind dip. A shower of flower petals completes these compositions.

Shrimp Rolls

Bypassing the quintet on the menu’s Chilled Plates listing, we turned our eyes directly to the longer list of entrees ($27-39)—and yes, it’s one of those enticing roll calls that make choosing a tortuous task. Laksa, maybe? I’ve slurped my way through Malaysia on this, practically the national dish—a brothy soup bouncing with—here at Khaluna, anyway—shrimp, tofu, peanuts, veggies and a soft-boiled egg. Next time!

Wikipedia instructed us that laab was the national dish of Laos, so of course, we ordered laab. It translates as “meat salad,” and on this menu, the meat is duck. Duck breast, thinly sliced, cooked beyond ruddy to medium, then chilled and fanned on a serving plate aside a slightly sweet, lightly spicy lemon grass salad livened with mint and cucumber. Simple and tasty.

But it was the Massaman curry we summoned next that blew us away. Long, simmered, tender cubes of beef consorted with chunks of sweet potato, roasted onions and the welcome surprise of savory toasted hazelnuts, all lolling in a gently smoky, gently savory curry broth (think: cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, star anise and a whole lot more) that pulled the dish together. I’ll be back for this one! And then, maybe I’ll learn to save room to try the chicken red curry. The duck fried rice. Or the meatless yellow curry starring squash in coconut cream. Maybe the fruity longan served with puffed rice and jasmine rice. (With our plates, we ordered a side of sticky rice, the way to go.)

Passionfruit Cremeux

Dessert? Mandatory, right? That’s what it says in my rule book. From the pastry chef’s list of three (plus tempting tropical flavors of ice cream and sorbet), we saved the mango cake (hibiscus granita, coconut milk tapioca, jasmine shortbread crumble) and the steamed chocolate cake (caramelized pineapple, black sesame crumble, banana ice cream) for future debacles and summoned the passionfruit cremeux (all $12-14).

Fine choice! A lowball glass came layered with velvety coconut ice cream layered with a refreshingly tart-sweet compote of lemongrass and kiwi amid spoonfuls of a marshmallow-y dragonfruit meringue. More flower petals too, to soften our exit into the cruel March night.

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