As I recently noted, the last few years have seen a dramatic upswing in high-end Twin Cities restaurants featuring the cuisines of minority communities. If—as I observed—in the case of Mexican cuisine(s) this phenomenon seems to involve mostly non-Mexican chefs and restaurateurs, in the case of Southeast Asian cuisines the situation is different. Young Joni, whose chef Ann Kim won the Beard award for “Best Chef: Midwest” this year, is probably the most celebrated of these restaurants. Hai Hai, whose chef Christina Nguyen, was nominated for the same award, is not too far behind. (For what it’s worth, we enjoyed our meal at Hai Hai a lot more than our meal at Young Joni.) Lat14, which opened last year in Golden Valley, is the most recent entry in the broad genre. We were there with friends a few weeks ago, and ate a goodly portion of the menu. Here is my review of that meal.
Like Young Joni and Hai Hai, Lat14’s menu is, broadly speaking, pan-Asian. Usually, this is the sort of thing that strikes fear in my heart but it is important not to be too doctrinaire about these matters: flavours and ingredients do not respect national boundaries and it could be argued that the cuisines of Southeast Asia have more in common with each other than do the multifarious cuisines that make up seemingly unitary national cuisines in countries like, say, India or China. And where Young Joni’s non-pizza menu moves a little broadly across the map of Asia (with Korean the real emphasis), Lat14 like Hai Hai focuses on those intersecting cuisines of Southeast Asia above and below the 14th parallel (hence the restaurant’s name). The one exception is a plate featuring Bangladeshi dishes, which I gather is a tribute to the chef Ann Ahmed’s husband’s culture. The rest of the menu is held together by the through lines of fish sauce, lime and vinegar—be the passports of the dishes those of Laos, Thailand, Vietnam or the Philippines . And we all thought almost everything we ate delivered very well. There were only a couple of dishes in what we ate that suffered from the curse of “elevation”.
We were a large group: five adults, a teenager and our two brats. The latter three were not originally supposed to attend but when a couple of other adults had to pull out at the last moment I decided to see if we could move our reservation to an earlier time (we could) and take the young people along for a taste of the high-end hipster foodie life. For that is exactly the genre that Lat14 occupies style-wise. It is housed in an erstwhile Perkins but the interior has been ripped out and run through the contemporary restaurant blender. It’s a much larger space than Hai Hai, and mercifully not as cramped or loud, but the general aesthetic is similar—though I think Lat14’s designers have applied a much lighter touch with the Asian signifiers. The restaurant is divided into a number of spaces. You enter, past tropical plants (a nice touch in November in Minnesota) into a large hall. On one side of this is an open kitchen; at the opposite end is a bar. In between are two more informal dining spaces, one that features high stools and another that features plus booths. Off to a side is a smaller dining room where tables are spread out a bit more. We were in this room.
Our first order of business was cocktails. It will not surprise you to learn that they have a bespoke cocktail menu or that the house cocktails feature Southeast Asian flavours. We picked mostly from this end of the menu and it was a mixed bag: two that were enjoyed by those who had them (the Mango Nada and the Dangerous Paradise) and two that were either too sweet or so fruity that the alcohol disappeared entirely into them—the fifth adult is a teetotaler, in case you’re worried). I was one of those who was not persuaded by my cocktail (Outcast of the Islands—how could I resist this title and still call myself a professor of postcolonial literature?) and switched thereafter to a glass of riesling. The food, however, was much more consistent.
What did we eat? (As usual, we shared everything.) We began with the following from the Small Plates section: Basil Wings (very good); a couple of orders of Grilled Beef Satay (very good); a couple of orders of Lumpia (also very good); Lao Yum Salad (fine); Nam Khao (quite good). We then got one order each of both the fried rice selections: Bacon Pineapple (very good) and Jaew Bong (also very good). Then an order of Drunken Noodles (fine). Only a couple of these dishes (the Nam Khao and the Drunken Noodles) made us think that we’d better off paying less for superior versions available on the Twin Cities’s true Eat Street. Which is not to say that there was anything wrong with either of these dishes.
The above might seem like a lot of food for a party of our size but to be safe we also ordered five large plates. These were more of a mixed bag. The Thai Basil Duck was tasty enough but didn’t really get any of us going (a bummer at $32); indeed, we all thought that the duck confit tossed with mushrooms and veg was better than the roast duck itself. The very dill-forward Aw Gai divided us a bit: those who like very herbal soups liked it, the rest were ambivalent; all of us agreed that it would probably be a bit much as an entree for just one person. The Khao Soi Chiang Mai was better than both but not as good as the versions available at either Bangkok Thai Deli or their satellite location, Krungthep Thai (where we ate this past weekend). The Steak Laab was an interesting take: slices of grilled flatiron with toasted rice powder and a larb dressing; alas, it mostly made us wish we were eating a more conventional larb. The Bangladeshi Beef Curry, on the other hand, ordered mostly to satisfy my curiosity, was rather good—a couple of people had it as their favourite entree. I thought the beef curry was excellent; but I don’t understand why they serve it with khichuri instead of either steamed rice or, better still, a paratha.
A side of pickled veg and some sticky rice and that was it for us. We had a lot of leftovers to take home and no room for dessert.
For pictures of the space and the food (and drinks), please launch the slideshow below. Scroll down for thoughts on service, the meal as a whole and what we thought of it relative to price (and to its competition).
Our server was friendly and knowledgeable but not always easy to find. They were slammed, by the way—possibly an effect of a very positive review in the Star Tribune the previous week. We were pleased as well to see a slightly more diverse crowd eating here than we’ve seen at most high(er)-end Twin Cities restaurants over the last 12 years.
All of this food, five cocktails, a glass of wine, tax and 20% gratuity came to just over $410. Counting the teenager (who didn’t eat a lot) and two younger boys as one adult that’s less than $70/head. Now keep in mind we ordered enough food for at least eight adults—so the true price for what we ate would be closer to $50/head. Either way, not bad at all for the quality of what we ate, even though the larger plates were, as I noted, a bit of a mixed bag. It’s true that nothing we ate here that is available on University Ave. in St. Paul was superior to the better (and cheaper) versions available there. But the ingredients were doubtless superior and I see no reason to object to paying more to eat this food in a fancier/hipper setting.
That said, I’m not sure how much of a hurry I am in to go back. Whereas we left Hai Hai talking about coming back soon to eat the pork ribs adobo and the mussels steamed in khao soi gravy again I don’t know that there was anything at this dinner that any of us was jonesing to eat again very soon. That said, if we lived within easy reach of Golden Valley instead of one hour south, we’d be back. But living one hour south as we do, I think we’re more likely to point our car towards Hai Hai the next time we want to eat Southeast Asian food in an upscale setting. Your mileage may literally vary.
Okay, my next restaurant review will likely be of a meal in Montreal in June (at Joe Beef). Before that I might have a quick look at another Indian grocery, in Bloomington. The next Twin Cities meal review will likely be either of lunch at Krungthep Thai (where we have already eaten) or dinner at Demi, where we are finally scheduled to eat soon if the weather does not play us false. Lots of booze in between.