Khe-Yo's Lao Food Needs to Kick up the Spice
157 Duane Street, New York, NY, 10013 (b/n Hudson and West Broadway; map); 212-587-1089; kheyo.com
Service: Friendly and accommodating but a little scattered.
Setting: High ceilings belie a sort of industrial Jungle Book vibe.
Must-Haves: Sticky rice, duck tongue salad, crispy coconut rice.
Cost: Starters $9 to $15, mains $21 to $33. Portions are on the small side, so expect to pay $40 to $50 for food.
Compare To: Kin Shop, Pok Pok, Uncle Boons
Recommendation: Decent for the neighborhood. Food and drink are agreeable but we're not racing to go back.
The sticky rice had me reeling.
It held together in tight balls and carried a faint floral perfume. Two sauces were served alongside for dunking balls of rice with your fingers: one an inky pile of eggplant cooked down into a thick paste, the other thin and full of sliced chilies, 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. I asked for more rice and did it all over again.
The best thing I ate at Khe-Yo, a restaurant serving the food Laotian food by way of Tribeca, was this complimentary serving of rice; it begins every meal at the dining room or the bar. The menu implores you to eat it with your hands, saying the rice tastes better that way. I wish the rest of the food delivered the same rush.
That's not to say diners aren't enjoying themselves. The mix of locals, finance industry workers, and generally fashionable New York out-and-abouters are eating rice with their hands and drinking makrud lime cocktails with smiles on their faces. But Chef Soulayphet Schwader's efforts to expose New York to Lao cuisine fall short of the can't-stop-eating-this jolt of flavor that the city's best southeast Asian restaurants deliver. Most everything on the menu is denuded of a certain spice or intensity, or in need of a counterbalance that isn't there.
Laap-Gai ($11) 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. Tam-Mak-Hoong ($11), a small ball of pounded papaya and raw winter squash, was soaked in a dressing that delivered heat but little else. A small main of red curry made with pork jowl ($21) offered coconut-rich texture and gentle sweetness, but where's the depth? And I was never clear what the grilled mushrooms on the side were for, other than bulking up the plate.
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 Laap-Peht ($15; photo up top) 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.
I was also charmed by the homey simplicity of Nam-Khao ($10), four neat coconut-flavored balls of rice 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.
Subtlety like this is generally misplaced in a cuisine that takes no prisoners. A special of thinly sliced ribeye served on a hot cast iron platter, fajita-style, approximated typical fajita blandness. A Pork Belly and Shrimp Spring Roll ($9) 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.
There is a beautiful-looking Whole Grilled Black Bass ($33), but on more than one visit we found it slightly overcooked and wanting for more than its meek tamarind-peanut sauce allowed. 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.
None of this is to say that Khe-Yo is a bad place to eat. Despite the flaws, I didn't regret eating a single dish. The staff are earnest, unpretentious, and friendly. The room, sort of a sexy industrial Jungle Book motif, accommodates a buzzy but not riotously loud crowd. For those just getting their feet wet in the great wide world of southeast Asian food, who aren't up for a trip to Queens or don't have the patience (or spice tolerance) for a meal at Pok Pok, who want some Manhattan atmosphere to class up their meal of curry and sticky rice, Khe-Yo may be of use. Then again, so is Kin Shop, where the flavors are bolder, better balanced, and much more precise.
Khe-Yo has another thing going for it: cocktails ($13), which I found simple but enjoyable, be they sweet bourbon, vermouth, and Angostura tarted up with calamansi lime or plum-infused gin given aromatic depth by Thai basil. The next time I'm in Tribeca I'd consider sidling up at the bar for one with a side of duck tongues. (Skip the house Lao-Lao, typically a rocket-fuel-harsh moonshine, which here is candy-sweet and mired with Cognac.)
But the rest of the menu needs to throw off its shackles before I rush back for another meal. Here's to hoping that it will. For now we'll always have that sticky rice.