Ann Ahmed is steadily building an impressive reputation for creating moments of beauty that transport diners to Southeast Asian destinations with each restaurant she opens.
The chef and restaurateur has transformed a Perkins into a paradise (Lat14) and a neighborhood restaurant into a setting that felt like a luxury spa with spicy chicken wings (Khâluna). So the anticipation was high when she announced that her next restaurant would be an already beautiful space near Loring Park.
Gai Noi gets its name from khao gai noi, a type of short-grain glutinous rice that is emblematic of the northern Xieng Khouang regions of Laos, where Ahmed and her family are from. The style and many dishes are in homage to Luang Prabang, a city that she said might just be her favorite in the world.
Ahmed worked with local design firm Shea to create style moments drawn from the city: dark wood shutters and greenery that drips from and shades nearly every corner of the eatery. Vintage pieces add modern and timeless style components.
The menu blends classic Laotian ingredients with French colonial influence and all are put through Ahmed's prism to create something very special on the edge of downtown Minneapolis.
Location: 1610 Harmon Place, Mpls., gainoimpls.com. Open daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
The vibe: Located inside the former 4 Bells, the restaurant's expanse is impressive, but doesn't feel overwhelming. Instead, there are indoor/outdoor nooks and corners where even in wintry months it will feel like a gardeny vacation setting. However, right now, when temperatures are mild, it's possible to take advantage of all the spaces in and around the building.
On the ground floor, window doors bring breezes into the downstairs bar, and small bistro tables are set out for dining near the sidewalks. The once open kitchen has been enclosed and the bar alongside it removed, while a wall that once divided the main dining room has been opened up for an airier feel.
Upstairs, on the top floor, is a glass-encased dining room, perfect for days the sky can't be trusted. And the adjacent rooftop terrace has views of both the top of the Basilica of St. Mary and activity in Loring Park.
The food: Ahmed again mixes more traditional Laotian dishes, like her Luang Prabang-style green papaya salad ($13), where the unripe fruit is shaved into long threads and sauced in a distinctively funky fish sauce, to dishes that are more Midwest-immediate like jalapeño wontons ($8). Sweet-spicy spaghetti noodles ($13) and gingery grilled lemongrass chicken ($14 for two skewers) are sure to be crowd-pleasers, while the roasted rice powder toasty beef laab seen ($16) is spicy-built for hot summer days, served with plenty of fresh herbs and crisp-cold lettuce and cucumbers. There's a selection of noodle dishes, fried rice and curries, too.
Calamari ($13), a dish that's been done dirty by too many bar-food spots, is given new life with the squid gorgeously sliced into patterns and fried with whole basil leaves. It's the kind of attention to aesthetics and experience that has become an Ahmed hallmark.
The dessert menu on the day we visited was short, but not to be ignored. A mango cremeux ($9) is a bit like the most sophisticated Dreamsicle that's ever been.
All the food carries such a summery feel — with green herbs and edible flowers — that it's almost hard to imagine winter could ever exist here.
The drinks: The cocktail list was created by beverage maestro Nick Kosevich, whose work is also on display at Mr. Paul's Supper Club, Earl Giles and several other local establishments. Many are pre-batched, making it easy for the staff to pour and serve with speed. Tropical flavors reign, like a starfruit-sweetened margarita, and many are available without alcohol.
Reservations: There are no reservations needed. Restaurant and rooftop are walk-ins only.
Getting there: It's meter parking and a small surface, pay lot nearby. There's also competition for parking with the nearby community college and park visitors.