Pie to Thai

Ketsana's Thai Restaurant
7545 Lyndale Ave. S., Richfield;
(612) 869-0087

Hours: Monday-Thursday 11:00 a.m.-9:00 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 11:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m.; closed Sundays
 

Was the Peach Pit, with its menu of fries and malteds, a credible place for the razor-thin cast of Beverly Hills 90210 to hang out? Taking burgers, malts, and fries as your base line, which is the next critical element in the American Diner Experience: a) all-day pancakes, b) neon, c) pie? Further, would Archie and Veronica eat Thai food? Would Betty? Jughead? Explain.

Few would deny that Ketsana's is thought-provoking: It is, after all, the metro's (the world's?) only Thai restaurant in a retro Fifties-style diner. There's something endlessly curious about sliding into a red-vinyl booth in a space so white, so chrome, so spic-and-span it fairly screams "a soda jerk dreams of Doris Day"--and then ordering chile-laced green papaya salad, coconut-broth tom ka soup, and some red curry mee kathree noodles. It's, like, so 21st Century.

Aside from providing conversation fodder, Ketsana's serves some very respectable Thai and Laotian food. The tom ka soup is a velvety delight, creamy with coconut milk, bobbing with salty straw mushrooms, and absolutely vivacious with big stalks of lemongrass, whole kaffir lime leaves, and slices of galanga--that spicy root the uninitiated take to be ginger. (A tureen of the tom ka costs $7.25 with chicken, pork, or fried tofu, and $10.25 with shrimp. It is served with rice and you're meant to spoon the soup over rice in your bowl; the portion is large enough to serve as many as six as a starter.)

Another standout is the pha ram long song, a dish in which the protein of your choice (again, $7.75 or $10.25) is dressed with a piquant peanut sauce, then placed on a bed of fresh-cooked spinach leaves. The result is a beautiful contrast of textures and flavors--the bright greens, the sweetly salty stewed topping, and the crunch of chopped peanuts.

The Goong Paradise ($10.25) is another excellent choice; it's a preparation of shrimp dressed with coconut milk and red curry, combined with whole straw mushrooms, green peas, and torn basil leaves in a sweet, fresh, and hot symphony.

Of the many noodle dishes on the menu, I thought the very best was the aforementioned mee kathree ($7.25), a rich, sweet combination of ground pork, scrambled egg, chopped peanuts, coconut milk, and red curry on rice noodles, all topped with fresh bean sprouts, chopped scallions, and a handful of cilantro. In fact, after a couple of visits to Ketsana's I learned that nearly anything on the menu featuring peanuts, coconut, or red curry is excellent, and that if you order carefully you can have a memorable meal.

Order carelessly, though, and your dining experience will be merely mediocre: Ketsana's doesn't do a lot of the Thai-restaurant standards as well as it does peanut and coconut dishes. For example, I honestly can't recommend the pad thai ($6.25-$10.25), which I found to range from gummy and tasteless to one-dimensional and mainly chile-hot. The papaya salad ($6.95) was one of the starchiest and least exciting versions of the dish I've had in the Twin Cities. Spring rolls ($3.95) were enormous and freshly made, but off-puttingly bland. The special spring rolls--$4.25, with shredded pork meat and pork skin instead of barbecued pork and shrimp--were better, but still not thrilling.

The dish that saddened me most was the pineapple fried rice ($6.25-$8.95), a mushy, brownish amalgam of rice and canned-tasting fruit. As I pushed it around the plate I got teary-eyed with longing for dearly, dearly departed Royal Orchid and its hollowed-out pineapple filled with herb- and fruit-bedecked rice. Sigh.

But aren't those Peach Pit vibes meant to channel nostalgia? And isn't nostalgia one of those magic forces you can't control once you conjure it up? Ketsana's does score high on other diner traditions like sweet, family-style service (please note that the restaurant is closed the first week in January--Family Vacation Week!), bargain pricing, and friendly neighborhood ambiance. It's also easily the best Thai restaurant south of 40th Street in Minneapolis, and if you live anywhere in the vicinity of I-494 and Lyndale you owe it to yourself to round up your gang and haul them here. And if you don't think you can get through a diner experience without a milk shake--why, there's a Dairy Queen right next door.

 

TABLEHOPPING

BEET SORBET:Pastry chef Adrienne Odom, whom many consider the most talented dessert wizard in town, is leading a demonstration dinner focusing on root-vegetable desserts. You know, root vegetables--beets, parsnips, rutabaga, etc. Think it can't be done? You've obviously never had Odom's chocolate ganache with beet sorbet and beet sauce--and if you take this class you'll learn how to make that sorbet, as well as Swedish carrot cake and fennel panna cotta. "Sweets Take Root" takes place Monday, May 22, costs $50 a person, and includes a light supper, beverage, and samples of the three desserts. For reservations call Aquavit, 80 S. Eighth St., Minneapolis, (612) 343-3333.

TENGO HAS LEFT THE BUILDING: When I found out that local sushi star Tengo had left Fuji-Ya back in January, I immediately called up my buddy Dennis Cass, a former Minnesota Monthly restaurant critic and fellow food obsessive: "I am so fucking smart," said Cass. "I really am. If you write about this, you have to tell the world that I knew Tengo wasn't there anymore. I knew it." Whereupon he let me in on his clue: A recent encounter with a less-than-stellar Fuji-Ya crab salad. The master, Cass surmised, would never have let such a crustacean fly.

Now Tengo, for the less sushi-obsessed, is a jovial genius who has taken the Best Sushi crown with him wherever he has gone. He spent six and a half memorable years dazzling the crowds behind the counter at Origami, then moved on to Fuji-Ya for a year and a half. So where are Sushi lovers to follow him next? Whither Tengo?

Hold on to your hats, kids: If there's a one of you smart enough to see this coming, I'll eat mine. He's in a sports bar in an Italian restaurant over a boxing ring.

More or less, anyway. Turns out that Tengo is heading the sushi-bar part of Cafe Della Vita, the upscale Italian restaurant forthcoming at the Minneapolis Life Time Athletic Club. What's that, you say? Remember the old-brick-and-ivy private club that looms like a castle over Second Avenue and Sixth Street in downtown Minneapolis? Well, the building has been bought by Life Time Fitness, which is upgrading the whole structure--and installing a boxing ring.

Tengo's fiefdom will be called the Sushi Sports Bar in Cafe Della Vita; it will have about two dozen tables, a full bar, a horseshoe-shaped sushi bar, and fancy plasma TVs. If sampling sushi in a sports bar sounds like tasting wine at a manure lagoon, fear not: The whole building is smoke-free--or so says Thad Carter, a server I talked to as the restaurant was vibrating with construction noise. Cafe Della Vita, he adds, "is really nice--the décor is white stucco and cherry wood, lots of contemporary light fixtures. It's elegant along the lines of Zelo and Palomino. On a scale of 1 to 10, I give it a solid 8 or 8.25." 8.25! Everybody's so fucking smart.

I also got to talk to Tengo--born Teng Thao, and sick to death of orange-beverage jokes: "Sometimes I think I'll change my name just so I don't have to hear that one any more." The restaurant will have no Japanese kitchen, he explains, so his showcase will consist of "basically just sushi, casual sushi. For sure this will be the most beautiful sushi bar in town. There will be a marble countertop."

Tengo also disabused me of the notion that a great sushi bar is all in the quality of the fish: Yes, he has special contacts with brokers in L.A., Chicago, and Florida, but even so, "The truth is, you can't get number-one quality tuna every day." Instead, he insists, the secret is a staff so organized, so scrupulous, and so in tune with a single set of standards, each piece of sushi that leaves the kitchen is cut and assembled as well as it can possibly be. (To that end, he has recruited a 12-year veteran of Saji-Ya in St. Paul as his side man for the Della Vita endeavor.)

Tengo also says that the last few months have been a godsend to him--even if they've been hard for sushi lovers. "I spent many, many hours at Fuji-Ya," he recalls. "Too many hours. I cut all the fish, I made the sushi, I was constantly there watching it. My wife, she was ready to throw me out: 'What are you, crazy?' she said. 'It's not even your own place.' But I'll be working like a dog when we get ready to open--I guess I better pack my bags."

So--not even your own place? Is there something we should know? Something behind Tengo's restless exploration of various restaurant styles and sizes? I asked, I queried, I quizzed, and then the sushi master told me--far more politely, of course--to wait and see, and not to be so fucking smart.

Cafe Della Vita and the Sushi Sports Bar are projected to open in mid-June, with a grand opening scheduled for mid-July; 615 Second Ave. S., Minneapolis; (612) 752-7000.

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