August 12, 2013 | BITE: My Journal

Khe-Yo: Laotian Reveries from Growing Up Midwestern


Mavelous chili prawns with toasted bread chunks to dunk in devilish, buttery pool.

          I’ve been sipping my drink -- rum with young coconut and kaffir lime -- straight up, pretty in pink. I’m already defanged by the menu note that says: “Sticky rice tastes better when you eat it with your hands.” I think everything tastes better when you use your fingers. I’m about to go wash my hands, when the waiter brings wet napkins with a half lemon slice tucked inside.

After a decade together Marc Forgione partners with his chef “Phet” to open Laotian Khe-Yo.

          As usual our trio wants almost everything, but we’ve narrowed our order to half a dozen starters at Khe-Yo, Marc Forgione’s new Laotian outpost with his decade-long right hand chef, Soulayphet Schwader, aka Phet.  Born in Laos, Phet grew up in Wichita in a neighborhood of resettled Laotians. He’s been cooking Forgione’s food for more than a decade. Now he’s recreating memories of food his mother cooked.

It’s dark and painfully noisy with an elephant sketched on wood and recycled teak tables.

          Around us the crowd grows, claiming 70 hard-bottomed seats at tables with cheerful splashes of red and yellow paint on reclaimed teak.  Excited shouts bounce off bare brick,and dark wood walls,  one sporting a stylized elephant sketch barely visible in our shadowy corner.  My friends, sisters, are drinking sparkling sake from a choice of china cups offered on a tray. “Nothing special,” says one, a connoisseur. “It quickly loses the fizz.”

I was early but didn’t mind the wait sipping rum with young coconut, and kaffir lime.

          Our waiter -- from Nepal, he responds when we ask -- small, with hair standing in flyaway tufts -- sets a small straw tower of sticky rice on the table.  “It’s the amuse,” he says. “The chef hopes you’ll eat it with your fingers. Make a ball and dip in these sauces.” There is an heirloom tomato purée in one bowl.  Next to it, the Bang Bang sauce is liquid electricity. Eyes open wide with the shock. I’m hooked already, gasping at the fire in my mouth, savoring layers of flavors beyond the explosion.

          The kitchen is slow. No complaint. After all, it’s the first week.  I drench another rice ball  in Bang Bang, and another, sneezing and choking a little on the chili heat.

After many an unpleasant duck tongue come these good, battered ones in Laotian salad.

          Now, at last, dishes converge, covering every empty space. I’ve never had a duck tongue I really liked till these crispy battered tongues, alternating with slices of meat, in Jurgielewicz duck salad. Khe-Yo means green, and there’s something green on almost every dish. Watercress, baby arugula and Rau-Rum, here --Vietnamese mint -- with shaved lemongrass, crispy shallots and toasted rice.

A must: crunchy coconut rice with spicy sausage to wrap in iceberg for a fiery dunk. 

          On another plate, baby iceberg lettuce, crisp and fresh, is meant to wrap around crunchy coconut rice cakes and slices of spicy kaffir lime sausage sprinkled with micro greens.  Roll it up and dip. My friend Josephine does it with chopsticks. But I’m still exercising the license to use fingers, licking up the torrid dribble.

Wrap crispy pork and shrimp rolls with carrots and herbs in bibb lettuce. Dunk.

          A pork belly and shrimp spring roll arrives cut into five easy pieces, the better to wrap in bibb lettuce along with sprouts and a tomato half, basil and shiso, before dipping.

Be sure to get some stuffing from the delicious bamboo grilled ginger quail.

          The grilled quail with Chinese broccoli could be an entrée for one, but it’s just a luscious tease for three. My share of stuffing disappears. I taste the delicious caramelized flesh of the thigh, then dip it into yet another bowl of Bang Bang.

Pork rinds and minced peanuts on cabbage are not enough to enliven papaya salad.

          You might think that a garnish of pork rinds on squares of cabbage with minced peanut would save the day for rather boring green papaya salad.  Not for me. I’m not sure why the pork jowl in red curry is disappointing -- too tame maybe -- though baby shiitakes and  the sweet tenderness of fairytale eggplant from the green market are refreshing.

No need to eat lemongrass spare ribs with chopsticks, elegant as that seems.

          Josephine can even eat spare ribs with chopsticks. I’m not tempted to try. Fingers seem designed for these meaty, fat-larded, lemongrass-scented bones. There are smashed long beans and heirloom tomatoes in the bowl alongside.

Pork jowl red curry with fairytale eggplant and baby shiitakes is missing some pow.

          The house has decided we should not miss the chili prawns. These heads-on, heads falling off beauties are perfectly cooked, drenched in a buttery pool, hotter than Rita Hayworth in Mame. Piled on the plate are thick triangles of toasted bread for dipping into that devilish cocktail of lime, soy butter and sriracha. I thought I couldn’t eat another bite. Now I fight to keep from asking for more toast. I’m remembering Forgione’s signature chili lobster. This is Phet’s play on that legend.

Strawberries and cashew brittle nicely trick up coconut rice pudding.

          Tenzing, our waiter, brings more wet napkins, and a menu of Laughing Man loose teas, Stumptown Coffee, and after dinner spirits.  “There’s just one dessert,” he points out, “rice pudding.” But Lao Lao liquor (Phet’s family recipe for a drink Laotians carry with them to parties) could be dessert too, he suggests. Gentrified here, it mixes spiced fruit -- peaches for summer -- with Hennessy.

Chef Soulayphet Phet Schwader emerges from the kitchen to chat with friends.

          We order pudding “with three spoons.” Minutes later Tenzing brings the check. Well, it’s true we’ve been here almost three hours. There are latecomers waiting for tables to clear. And Tenzing has been racing back and forth from the kitchen as if Edmund Hilary’s ascent of Mount Everest depended on him. With apologies, he brings dessert. I’m not a rice pudding fan, but I am a restaurant critic. I take a spoonful: Extra creamy, topped with strawberries and larded with cashew brittle. I actually like it.

          It’s only the first week, so this is just an intoxicated first impression. I need another visit. I expect to be fighting for a table at a civilized hour with our town’s crazed foodies on red alert.  The eating gig used to be more dignified.

157 Duane Street between West Broadway and Hudson Street 212 587 1089. Monday through Saturday 5:30 to 11 pm.

Photographs may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.

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