With her new restaurant Khâluna, which opens today, Ann Ahmed is all grown up. At least, that's how she describes the trajectory from her first restaurant, the 17-year-old Lemon Grass Thai Cuisine in Brooklyn Park, to her sophomore effort, Lat 14 in Golden Valley, and now to a breathtaking Shea-designed complex on the corner of 40th Street and Lyndale Avenue S. in Minneapolis that she describes as a "luxe escape."
"It's kind of like when we're traveling, we used to want to backpack, and now we're like, no, we'd like a nice hotel," Ahmed said. "Our backpacking days are over."
The space's components include an airy dining room and a wall that opens, in good weather, to an enormous patio which leads to the neighboring Khâluna Market, where Ahmed has curated Laotian goods, including fair trade textiles, baskets woven by a 100-year-old, and a small selection of Asian groceries. The room also serves as a private dining space for a party of 10, and its centerpiece is a cotton candy pink kitchen where Ahmed will teach cooking classes. Grab-and-go items will be available here to enjoy on another, more casual patio.
The through-line in all of Ahmed's menus is Southeast Asian cuisine, especially the Laotian food she grew up with. Shimmery mushroom-filled dumplings with skins made by pressing individual tapioca pearls together are a tribute to her family, who would gather together around the table to make the painstaking assembly go faster.
For many dishes, Ahmed fuses those traditional flavors with her personal favorites. An umami-packed seafood pasta puts her love of Italian food together with Southeast Asian ingredients such as galanga, lemongrass, makrut leaves and Tom Yum sauce. Shrimp rolls combine the crunch of an egg roll with the chew of a rice paper roll by putting one inside another, avoiding Ahmed's pet peeve of "anything mushy."
The menu is divided into small plates and salads ($12-$21) and entrees ($16-$28).
For drinks, bar manager Trish Gavin's selections of spirits and wines follow the journey of European traders to the historic East Indies with ingredients that trace their route. Substantial nonalcoholic offerings are mostly low-sugar and have some added benefits, with teas and roots that help cleanse, awaken and relax.
If that has guests feeling like they're lounging in a spa by the pool in some far-flung resort, mission accomplished.
"When people go out, they want an escape, they want an experience," Ahmed said. "I hope that this will be something that's memorable."
Khâluna is open from 4-10 p.m. Sun., Wed. and Thu. and 4-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat. Make reservations, which are going fast, at khaluna.com.