After opening Lemon Grass in Brooklyn Park in 2006, and Lat14 in Golden Valley 12 years later, chef Ann Ahmed has attained a significant goal with the recent launch of Khâluna, her latest — and most ambitious — restaurant.
"I've been working on getting to Minneapolis for my entire career," she said. "Every time I've tried, it didn't work out, and for a while I just gave up. Don't get me wrong, I don't have any regrets being in the suburbs. I love the suburbs. But Minneapolis is different. There's just a whole lot more excitement here."
"Here" is 40th and Lyndale, just south of Uptown, where Ahmed has transformed what had been a dreary, short-lived chain restaurant into a food-and-drink showplace.
"I wanted this place to be relaxing, comforting and very transporting," she said. "Because of COVID, we've been cooking for ourselves, and we miss being taken care of. I wanted to give people a little vacation without the hassle of having to go through TSA."
Mission accomplished. Stepping into the 90-seat dining room is the visual equivalent of checking into a posh resort and taking a deep, cleansing breath.
The airy, wide-open space is trimmed in pale woods — whitewashed pine and white oak, bleached ash — with putty-colored plaster walls, pearl-tinted upholstery and a concrete-like quartz bar top. The muted palette is an understated backdrop that allows the kitchen and bar's colorful handiwork to capture center stage.
Ahmed tapped Shea, the same Minneapolis design firm behind the transformation of a Perkins franchise into stylish and energetic Lat14, to create similar visual pyrotechnics.
At Khâluna, the showstopper is a half-dozen domes, 6 feet in diameter and fashioned from plywood, that hover above the dining room. Created by Twin Cities artisan Adam Croft, the minimalist, sculptural pendants resemble gigantic, upside-down salad bowls, and they illuminate the room in a warm, honeyed glow.
Diners' eyes will also land on custom cabinetry and screens — made with reclaimed local oak — from Interscapes, the Brooklyn Center woodworking shop. And while many visitors might not realize that there's a smaller destination in the back of the restaurant, they should seek it out.
The multipurpose space functions as a grab-and-go deli, a retail shop (focusing on a beautiful array of textiles, dishware and baskets made by artisans from Laos, Ahmed's birth country), a private dining room and a cooking school. A showy demonstration kitchen is outfitted with cabinets painted pink, a perfect match to the shade that Ahmed spied in the fitting room at a favorite clothing store.
"It's basically because my husband gave pink a hard 'no' at home," she said with a laugh. "But this is work, and it's what I want."
Tarique Ahmed, Ann's spouse, plays a major role in the story of Khâluna's origin. He's channeled his finance background into developing a real estate portfolio, and after acquiring the building, his plan was to lease it out.
"Well, guess what, he rented it to his wife," said Ann Ahmed.
She embraced the property's possibilities after seeing the wall of accordion-style glass doors between the dining room and expansive (and now handsomely outfitted) patio.
"I took one look and thought, 'Yeah, I can work with this,' " she said. "That's when the ideas starting flooding out."
The menu is based on what Ahmed has gleaned from her journeys through Southeast Asia ("When I travel, I don't have a museum itinerary, I have a food itinerary," she said), borrowing flavors and dishes and translating them to complement — and challenge — contemporary Minnesota tastes.
It's a feast-for-the-senses culinary strategy that includes beef short ribs and shanks braised in a lively Thai curry and paired with sweet potatoes; dumplings made with tapioca pearls and stuffed with mushrooms, peanuts and pistachios; a whole fried red snapper, lavishly dressed with a playful mango slaw; and delicate shrimp rolls packed with mint, fragrant purple shiso and crunchy jicama.
Most of the menu has a "shareable" vibe, and prices range from $12 to $21 for starters and $16 to $36 for entrees. Beverage director Trish Gavin's cocktails are $11 to $13, and a dozen nonalcoholic cocktails run $8 to $9. A 21% hospitality surcharge (15% for takeout) is added to all orders.
"This surcharge allows us to work towards our vision of being the change we wish to see in our industry, which is to operate as an equitable wage house for both front and back of house," explains an insert included with the tab. "With this surcharge, we are able to provide higher wages, paid time off, holiday pay, retirement benefits, mental health services, as well as health and dental insurance for our staff."
Khâluna (it's Lao for "please," emphasizing compassion) is an ambitious project, and the natural next step for an entrepreneur who decided to buy her first restaurant when she was a week away from her college graduation and then financed it by selling her car, living in her mother's basement and walking to work.
Now, a decade and a half later, Ahmed is responsible for the livelihoods of more than 100 employees, including 43 at Khâluna. Labor is one of the great challenges currently facing the dining industry, and the process of creating the Khâluna payroll has altered Ahmed's outlook when it comes to recruiting and management.
"Before, it was telling them what we needed, and wondering whether or not they can fill that need," she said. "Now, it's more like, 'What is it that you want?' and 'What is it that you need?' and 'What can I do for you?' If I can meet their needs, then they're going to be happier and more productive. If they show interest in wanting to work here, then that's my validation that I'm doing something right, and that maybe others will be inspired to do the same thing."
Khâluna, 4000 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls., 612-345-5199, khaluna.com. Open 4-10 p.m. Sun., Wed., Thu.; 4-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
Lat14, 8815 7th Av. N., Golden Valley, 763-400-7910, lat14.com. Open 4-9 p.m. Sun., Wed., Thu.; 4-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
Lemon Grass, 8600 Edinburgh Center Dr., Brooklyn Park, 763-494-8809, lemongrassmn.com. Open 4-9 p.m. Wed.-Sun.