Kinsen Noodles' ambiance outshines the food

Kinsen's pan-Asian dishes, like Curry Triangles, are all $14 or less

Kinsen's pan-Asian dishes, like Curry Triangles, are all $14 or less

For three years, the colorful, contemporary Kindee Thai has been spicing up the food offerings of Minneapolis's Mill District. The kitchen offers an accessible approach to Southeast Asian cooking by focusing on the standard curries and noodles and spring rolls ubiquitous to American Thai restaurants and tending to eschew or limit the cuisine's more provocative ingredients, such as whole fish and furiously hot chilies. Other local Thai restaurants may offer bolder flavors, but Kindee's beef lettuce wraps, pad Thai, or rich, herbaceous green curry certainly make for a fine, workaday meal.

This summer, Kindee's owners, the husband-and-wife team of Thai natives Nuntanit Charoensit and Kong Tiyawat, launched a new concept in Uptown called Kinsen, a pan-Asian noodle shop and bar. Kinsen differentiates itself from its sister restaurant and the four Thai eateries within just a few blocks by casting to broader geographies, including Vietnam, Japan, China, and, soon, Korea.

The new eatery was a complete build-out of a former office space, squeezed between Bar Abilene and the Lagoon Cinema, amid a tangle of sidewalk and street traffic. To get there, you may have to dodge a pack of teens racing to make a movie or a cell-phone-clutching motorist about to clip a cyclist.

But a firm tug on Kinsen's giant orange door reveals a swank respite from the chaos. The clean-lined space has windows running floor to ceiling and liquor bottles lined up in a neat array. Despite its slick digs, Kinsen fits into a young Uptowner's budget by offering all its dishes for $14 or less. Specials are offered pretty much constantly. One evening, happy hour was in effect all day; on another, twosomes could share an appetizer, two entrées, dessert, and a bottle of wine for $45. On one particularly fortuitous visit, all the specialty cocktails were priced just $3 apiece. Singapore Soda? Why not? It's a blend of lime, orange, and vodka that's more refreshing and less cloying than a Singapore Sling. Ready for another? The Prairie Saint is a refreshed Cosmopolitan that swaps out the grenadine for that ethereal floral liqueur St. Germain.

And then it was time to eat. I took my first bite of a teriyaki beef strip failed miserably. My teeth were no match for this meat stick—did my molars need sharpening? The menu described it as "tender," though it was anything but. Sure, the fiery sriracha sauce was a nice touch, but the dish was too much work. Cutting bites with a knife and fork took strenuous sawing, and our jaws ached from chewing.

On to the curry triangle, which resembles a samosa crossed with an egg roll, with a flaky fried wrapper folded to hold a curry-spiced mash of fried onions and yams. It was a tasty snack, overwhelmed a bit by the sweetness of a fresh mango puree. Same story with the cream cheese wontons. They were perfectly plump, creamy, and crisp, but between the filling and cocktail sauce-like condiment, sweeter than the standard rendition.

Pavlova: meringue with fresh whipped cream, berries, and berry coulis

Pavlova: meringue with fresh whipped cream, berries, and berry coulis

The beauty of Thai cuisine is its ability to balance sweet, sour, and saltiness with bitterness and spice. Green papaya salad typically exemplifies this blend, but Kinsen's tipped the sweet-sour balance too heavily to the sweet, and it lacked the dish's typically pungent punch and blast of heat. Also, the papaya was cut in long, thick ribbons, instead of the usual matchstick, a shape that made the fruit look elegant but emphasized its fibrous nature. Each bite felt like chewing cud.

The green curry rice bowl seemed like a safe haven, considering the strength of Kindee's curry. The main elements were in fine form—the rice was delicate, the curry sauce lap-up-able—but they were served in the inverse of their usual proportions. There was no excess of coconut milk slurry to spoon up, as it had all been absorbed by the rice. Sure, this version looked prettier and probably saved several calories, but it didn't seem worth skimping on the sauce's richness.

Moving beyond Thai borders, the chicken adobo featured chunks of tender, skin-on bird, but the marinade—a "secret sweet-and-sour reduction"—again leaned too sweet, even when met with the sharpness of a few pickled radishes. It rather reminded me of teriyaki. A Filipino friend took a bite. "If you had me guess what this dish was, I would not have said adobo," he remarked.

Kinsen is foremost a noodle shop, and those starchy strands are its strength. The chewy udon ropes in the tom yom soup are silky with just the right amount of snap. Lacy, jagged egg noodles, rather like skinny ramen, are delicate and springy. But for all the choices—soba noodles, rice vermicelli noodles, glass noodles made from mung bean starch—the noodles are let down by their broths.

The Boat Noodles, which might be described as a sort of Thai-style pho, arrived in a salty-sweet liquid that tasted mostly of star anise. Among the lovely bits of beef tenderloin and brisket, I found meatballs as dense as the rubber toys sold for a quarter in vending machines. (For those who might sup the soup more zealously, Kinsen plans to host a Boat Noodle eating competition in mid-September.) The Tum Yum soup was stuffed with plump, briny shrimp and fresh mushrooms, but even though its broth touched all the salty-sour-hot bases, it was missing the aggressiveness that makes it addictive. The Sue Ko Tai egg noodles with sliced pork didn't have nearly the tang, succulence, or appeal of its cousin, Vietnamese-style rice noodles with barbecue pork.

To Kinsen's credit, the dishes look as attractive as the space. Service is attentive. The kitchen sources local, naturally raised meats. Noodles and proteins aren't over or undercooked. Then how is it that at three meals at Kinsen I didn't find as many dishes as I liked in one visit to Kindee?

When I eat Asian cuisine, I revel in the way the sauces and broths are rich with layers of flavor and complexity. But many of Kinsen's dishes seemed flat, lacking in bite, stripped of their funk—no more nuanced than their counterparts in an American mall food court. Kinsen's cute tray of spice pots, containing sriracha, crushed red peppers, and Thai chili-vinegar blend, definitely helped, but I still never found the right flavor balance. As Kinsen's recipes continue to be refined—house-made noodles are said to be on the way—I'll be hoping to find a bowl that feels like it's saving me the cost of a plane ticket.