Chef Schwader is at his best when working in more subtle ways, such as with his duck tongues. I want all duck tongues to be these duck tongues. In his duck salad they're only one small component of a dish that includes baby bitter greens as well as thin slices of duck breast. But it's the tongues you'll fight your date for: deboned, delicately fried, softer and creamier than the best sweetbreads. They look like garnish for the greens and tender (and excellent) duck breast; it's really the other way around. Nothing about this dish suggests southeast Asian laap, but roll with it.
The best thing I ate at Khe-Yo was this complimentary serving of rice; it begins every meal at the dining room or the bar.
Chili Dipping Sauce
A dipping sauce full of sliced chilies served with the sticky rice, a roar of heat and fish sauce and garlic that kept me reaching for water for the rest of the night. But tongue ablaze, I kept dunking and dunking. I hid the sauce when they tried to take it away.
A small ball of pounded papaya and raw winter squash was soaked in a dressing that delivered heat but little else.
Pork Belly & Shrimp Crispy Roll ($9)
This spring roll satisfies with a porked-up bouncy shrimp paste in a crunchy wrapper, but it didn't take me anywhere new. Also note the singular roll—you get one specimen for the price.
This salad balances tender ground chicken with the crunch of bean sprouts, fried chicken skin, and toasted rice powder with licks of lime and chili. But it's mellow where it should be fierce, in need of more heat, more texture, more toasted rice umph.
A special of thinly sliced ribeye cooked, fajita-style on a hot cast iron skillet, approximates fajita blandness.
Chili Prawns ($25)
Schwader's take on his boss Marc Forgione's take on the national dish of Singapore, are crisp and sweet beneath their tangy chili sauce and burnished slabs of Texas toast, but the seaside flavors taste like they belong on another menu, and the ideas behind the dish, twice-replicated and -removed, wear thin.
I was charmed by the homey simplicity of these homey coconut rice balls that are fried and topped with rounds of pork sausage. You smash the rice balls, stir them up with the sausage and fried makrud lime leaves, and go to town, appreciating their sweetness and tender-crisp textural contrast. Schwader has a way with makrud lime, bringing its flavor more front and center with a boldness few chefs muster. But if you're looking for heat and acidity here, you have to look to that magic chili dipping sauce.
Kentucky Bourbon with Calamansi Lime ($13)
Bourbon, vermouth, and Angostura are tarted up with calamansi lime juice for a cocktail that tastes part Manhattan, part sweet tea, part southeast Asian easy-drinking tipple.
Damson Gin and Thai Basil ($13)
If you like your gin drinks a little on the sweet side, this will do you right, and there's some tart plum essence for balance along with the aromatic lift of Thai basil.
Rice Pudding ($7)
The sole dessert on the menu is a noncommittal rice pudding that's inflected with coconut milk, apples, and caramel. It tastes like a subdued candy apple, for better and for worse.