There’s something intoxicating about the strivers: the squirt hockey player training for the NHL, the start-up entrepreneur scaling toward the Fortune 500, the suburban restaurateur dreaming of the big city.
Khâluna is the realization of that dream for Ann Ahmed.
Born in Laos and living in a Thai refugee camp until she was age 4, Ahmed was sponsored, along with her family, to come to Minnesota. She grew up in her uncle’s restaurant, left to California, and came home in 2005 to buy a restaurant in a strip mall in Brooklyn Park. Lemon Grass Thai Cuisine slowly built a loyal clientele who realized something special was happening. Ahmed spent a decade defining her signature style: traditional Southeast Asian flavors that are turned up to 11.
Then she burst onto the foodie scene in 2018 after converting a former Perkins restaurant in Golden Valley into the stylish Lat 14, where the sleek room was routinely upstaged by dishes with a personality as big as her own. After COVID-19 vaccines rolled out, Ahmed and her husband bought a sports bar in south Minneapolis, gutted it, and now are ready to compete with the culinary heavy-hitters with Khâluna.
And it does compete. Khâluna checks all the boxes: a beautiful room, Instagram-worthy plating, and flavor combos that you’ll be thinking about long after you’ve nabbed that tough-to-get reservation.
Complex simplicity is a theme you’ll see throughout the menu. Start with the shrimp rolls, delicately made egg rolls wrapped in mint and herbs inside spring-roll wrappers that offer a punch from purple shiso and a crunch from chopped jicama. Or take a rewarding risk and try the tapioca dumplings filled with shiitake and crimini mushrooms in a peanut sauce. Sakoo is a Thai street food, and Ahmed elevates it into a bite as tasty as it is beautiful.
If you’re looking to slot Ahmed’s Khâluna into a category, don’t. “People are always wanting to put me in a box. Don’t do that! Don’t put me in a box,” she told me recently. Khâluna, like Lat 14, is an extension of Ahmed’s unique upbringing. She’s not a Laotian chef; she’s a Minnesotan chef influenced by living in California, traveling around the world, and marrying a Muslim man.
“I create a strong foundation for my food, and that’s me as a person. You’re coming on a journey of who I’ve been and who I’ve met,” she said.
That foundation manifests most clearly in Ahmed’s favorite dish on the menu, the Bucatini Talay. It looks like a beef ragu, but it’s tom yum made from shrimp, roasted chiles, and garlic, all topped with calamari, scallops, and fish roe. I’d like to see more substantial scallop pieces, but the surprising combination of flavors left me craving this dish.
Don’t miss the massaman curry, which traces back to Thailand (with Indian, Malaysian and Muslim influences) combination of coconut milk, lemongrass, cardamom, and cinnamon. It’s warming, comforting, and topped with toasted hazelnuts and truly lovely short ribs from the local Peterson Farms.
If you’re looking for more delicate dishes, duck laab is absolutely beautiful with its thin slices of aged duck breast served alongside a spicy lemongrass-and-cucumber slaw. The gaeng toon is sort of like a fish soup. It’s intended to have a delicate hint of spice to contrast with a sour curry, but unfortunately on our visit it was overwhelmingly spicy. That’s the sort of kink a newly opened restaurant has to work out.
I won’t tell you not to order the Rainbow Rice—the winner of the beauty pageant 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 the blue rice, as the acid turns it purple. It’s cool, but it’s essentially a $21 rice bowl. Perhaps it’s worth it for the guaranteed Instagram likes.
I’d place the cocktails and non-alcoholic drinks instantly among the city’s finest. Bar director Trish Gavin has a knack for creating the most flavorful and interesting tonics I’ve ever had. Pair the spiced, cardamom-forward tonic with Japanese gin or whisky, and the delicately fruited 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 cool) and layered sparkling waters flavored with ginseng and mint, or jasmine and chamomile.
This is elevated Asian food, precisely plated in surroundings that are worth paying for. The interior is stunning. It is about as far of a departure from the old Harriet’s Inn as you could imagine. Cream and slate tones are on display throughout, punctuated by huge handcrafted plywood light fixtures whose diameter is as large as chef Ahmed’s ambition.
“We gave the suburbs an outside-their-boundary, elevated Asian dining experience,” Ahmed said. But everyone told her, “You need to be in Minneapolis—your food belongs in Minneapolis.”
Well, Minneapolis, Ann Ahmed has arrived.
Where: 4000 Lyndale Ave S., Minneapolis
Reservations: Walk-ins only at the bar, Reservations required
Parking: Small lot adjacent, valet offered