If you are only going to try one new “it” restaurant this year, then let it be Khe-Yo. Not just because it’s located on a trendy TriBeCa shopping street, nor because Soulayphet (“Phet”) Schwader – who after years of cooking for Marc Forgione, managed to convince his mentor to partner with him and open a South-east Asian joint. Definitely not because it’s one of the few Laotian/Thai restaurants in the city, and certainly not because the service is flawless, nor the fact that the fern-adorned exposed brick walled, aged-wood bedecked room happens to be both chic and cozy, but primarily because it is a fireworks treat, thrill and delight for the senses.
After immigrating to the Midwest from his native Laos when Chef Phet was a kid, his mom would send him to school with Laotian food when all he wanted was a ham sandwich like everyone else. Wait, what? If my mother would have packed Tam-Mak-Hoong (Smashed Green Papaya Salad) or Ping-Sai-Ua-Moo (Grilled Laos sausage with green mango and peanut sauce) or even Laap-Dip-Nguah (Steak tartare with bone marrow) in my lunchbox, I might have gone to school willingly!
With only 14 family-style items on the menu (the 15th being a single dessert of fruit-topped rice-pudding) Chef Phet ratchets a variety of proteins all the way up and down the flavor scale, thanks to his deft use of the gamut of south-east Asian herbs, roots and seasonings. If the end result isn’t 100% Laotian (or 100% Thai for that matter), Phet’s years behind the cooker have yielded a comprehensive understanding of what his customers want before they arrive, how to blow them away while they’re there and then how to keep them insanely loyal thereafter.
The first order of Sticky Rice (always on the house) arrives in a little whicker basket and is accompanied by a Babaghanoush-looking eggplant pate and a dipping dish of (chili-chili) Bang-Bang sauce. So when you roll the coconut-sweetened rice into a ball, dip it into the Bang-Bang (for as long or as deep as your internal fire hydrants will allow) and then top it off with a dollop of eggplant moosh, you will experience a VIP invitation to a marathon tea-dance for all five tastes senses.
The sublime sticks of Sien-Haeng (Sesame Beef Jerky) are so unbelievably morish that you will find yourself resorting to kindergarten tricks to distract your dining companions to look away while you snag them all. They arrive with a small dark wedge-shaped paste of smoked chilies (more fragrant than hot) and fresh radishes for contrast. Also on the un-sharably sharable list are the Fried Calamari dribbled with chili mayo between diced cubes of fresh watermelon.
The Chicken Wings (from tip to shoulder) were deep fried and then smothered in an impossibly sweet and tangy marinade from Hoisin and Sriracha, before being tossed with nubs of crispy pork rinds and crisped Thai basil, and served next to a pickled cucumber salad.
I wish I had something better to say about the gorgeous-looking soy-crusted Ping-Sien-Moo (Spare Ribs), but the ensuing struggle to get them to release their vice-grip from their bones was a bit of a defeat.
As odd as it might have been to see two fresh fish options on the menu (Banana Wrapped Red Snapper and Whole Black Bass) from Laos, a land-locked country, we still ordered the game-changing Goong-Phet (Chili Prawns) that were the reason we had such an enormous full moon. A clutch of hearty head-on shrimp draped over the most unbelievably delicious Sriracha, basil, butter and coconut curry with doorstep wedges of crusty ginger-scallion-lathered toast to mop up the sauce. And mop it up we did. (Had there been any left, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see our fellow diners dabbing a little on their wrists and behind their ears.)
The cocktails are unsurprisingly exotic and the modest all-French wine list has been well selected to cope with (and complement) the uncompromising food flavors, like a red Sancerre named for Marc Forgione himself.
Khe-Yo is without doubt my restaurant of the month for August.