At Gai Noi, a restaurant by the James Beard-nominated chef Ann Ahmed, you may count the many ways in which expectations are defied.
Can an all-day restaurant, open seven days a week and serving nearly 40 dishes, more than 10 sides and four desserts to a 70-table restaurant, work? Yes, if you discount the cadence in which dishes arrive (purposely at will); the minimalist batched cocktail program; and the kitchen's occasional foibles, which seemingly increase when the dining room nears capacity.
Can the kitchen be unbending in its menu choices? Yes, if only servers were as spirited as ours, who reinforced what the menu stated — "We don't adjust spice here" — before serving several dishes so hot that they lingered in our heads like bad karaoke — in a very good way.
And can all this deliver up to the standards that granted Ahmed her stature? All things considered, it most certainly does.
It's a mistake to think of Gai Noi as a cobble of greatest hits from the chef's other restaurants, Lat14 and Khaluna. There are dishes that cross over: The basil wings, for instance, are as good as you remember them — batter as craggy as the Rocky Mountains, supremely moist flesh, spicy but not deliriously so. The noodle stir-fries, both the classics and some obscure, but wonderful, regional spins. The jeows, which pair nicely with her sticky rice. And those laabs. My favorite is the Laab Seen because the soft, leathery beef is flecked with chiles and toasted rice powder — a deeply satisfying balance.
But Gai Noi really is more sequel than reprise, a showcase for Ahmed to paint a more intimate picture of her Laotian hometown, Luang Prabang. If you look closely, you'll notice only a few remnants of 4 Bells, the Loring Park restaurant that closed and paved the way for this three-story shophouse reminiscent of something you'd find on the streets of Southeast Asia. The catalog-worthy dining room is filled with communal tables, on which there are vintage tea tins carrying colorful chopsticks. You may find bird cages for lanterns upstairs, and canopies of plants lining a glorious skylight. All-day dining here feels breezy and nonchalant.
To embrace that vibe, order dishes that lean Cambodian. I had the Khao Poon Gai, the region's equivalent of chicken noodle soup, twice because the broth was so rich and clean. I struggled with the Mok Gai, a chicken and spicy rice slurry with overwhelming amounts of dill, that ate surprisingly dry (slightly better was the whitefish equivalent, Mok Paa).
And I began to order the papaya salads with greater regularity once the kitchen adjusted the sweetness and ceded to the unapologetically funky dressing, which boded well for the thin, crunchy ribbons of raw green papaya. These salads are different from the more common Thai staple offered around town, and they're a revelation.
I wish the Khao Soi Heng, a Cambodian version of the yellow-curry noodle staple from its neighboring country, was better balanced. This one was overwhelmed by a tomato ragu, and the whole affair recalled a Bolognese that had soured. A much better evocation of Ahmed's creativity is the Panang Spaghetti, which fuses pasta with a creamy but not heavy curry sauce.
The watermelon salad, on the other hand, is challenging to appreciate. On a hot summer day, there's nothing better than cold, freshly cubed watermelon, but here the shrimp flakes and flying fish roe topping it were heavy-handed and took the contrast too far. Balance — not necessarily a conceptual fault — is unfortunately a prevalent theme with many of the dishes.
Should you choose to play it safe, there are many dishes here that equal their best renditions from Southeast Asia.
Gai Basil is one. The nubs of ground chicken feel alive, as if they're emerged from a very hot wok, tossed with lots of basil and a stir-fry sauce that teeters nicely between salty and sweet. The curries are another — all uniformly excellent. I would recommend the verdant green one because it isn't offered at her other restaurants, but my pick is the yellow curry, because the makrut lime leaves imbue it with a kind of nuance that I've never tasted anywhere else. And I would order the curry fried rice again. Who wouldn't enjoy a pitch-perfect one, with tender, sweet raisins?
The more middling dishes feel like peace offerings to those less willing to partake in adventure. Tables around us would order meat skewers (fine) and fried calamari, and while the latter tastes like those wings, the rings are a little heavily battered. Egg rolls were uncrisp — and generally unremarkable — and the sweet and sour crispy tofu felt like a greasy afterthought.
What surprised me, though, was the Pad See Ew, a reliable staple at Lat14. The first time I ordered it at Gai Noi, the noodles were dark and salty; the next time it was the opposite — pallid and bland — and when it split the difference, during our most recent dinner, the whole dish ate soggy and sweet.
It isn't like an Ahmed restaurant not to nail such a dish, but nitpicking here is the culinary equivalent of penalizing a mostly faultless essay for messy handwriting.
On my mind, still: the snappy tempura green beans, a tame salad, the beautifully composed and dressed Lao Yum, which chile-averse diners would gladly get behind; and the grilled beef, which our server understandably attempted to steer us away from. Lucky that she didn't, because it's $19 for 4 ounces of smoky, judiciously cooked and seasoned Peterson Farms rib-eye.
In fact, prices across the menu are reason alone to make your pilgrimage here. It may be worth it to enjoy dishes that are a little more dialed-in at Khaluna, but you will pay (justifiably) dearly for the experience. At Gai Noi, two, maybe three diners could subsist on a meal well under $100, in grand environs where you may linger all day, even if just for the wings or those addictive coconut pancakes.
While overstaying your meals is a disservice to the business model, there's always a special place for those who redefine what a restaurant could be. Gai Noi is it.
⋆⋆ ½ highly recommended
Location: 1610 Harmon Place, Mpls., gainoimpls.com.
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.
Prices: Reasonable across the board. Snacks range from $9-$15, salads $13-$16, and heavier plates from $11 for egg and basil fried rice to a top-end price of $19 for grilled rib-eye. Desserts $9.
Beverage program: You'll find plenty of batch cocktails by local mixologist Nick Kosevich ($10-$15) as well as a handful of wines by the glass, beer and zero-proof cocktails.
Parking: There are plenty of meters and an adjacent lot, but it fills quickly during peak times. Expect to circle.
Tip or no tip: An 18% service charge is added to all checks, and when the check comes, there's no tip line.
Noise level: Comfortable, but may vary on where you're seated and when you're visiting.
Worth noting: Gai Noi doesn't take reservations, but the waiting list goes quickly. And Gai Noi is short for khao gai noi, a type of rice served in the region of Laos where chef Ann Ahmed is from.
What the stars mean:
⋆⋆⋆ Highly recommended
Jon Cheng is the Star Tribune's restaurant critic. Reach him at email@example.com or follow him at @intrepid_glutton.