A little more than three weeks after Naviya’s Thai Brasserie opened in Linden Hills, the restaurant-starved residents of southwest Minneapolis crowded into the restaurant’s tiny foyer to wait for a table.
Wait a minute, “restaurant-starved?” These folks have the under-appreciated Cafe Twenty Eight a block away, the much beloved Broders’ and Cafe Maude just down the street, the reborn Heidi’s and Blackbird, a near 15-block trail of Asian restaurants on Eat Street, the new Pizzeria Lola, and the under-the-radar Cave Vin — I’d better stop now because I’m going to leave someone out.
And yet, the tables and the foyer were full. These people (and here I’ll have to include myself) just love their neighborhood restaurants. And Naviya’s, I predict, is going to play very nicely with the other neighborhood kids.
The atmosphere hits that sweet spot between fine dining and casual, where jeans are okay (but probably your nice dark-wash jeans with the sexy blouse). Where kids are welcome (the quiet, urbane ones who can order their own pad Thai especially so). Where you can indulge a little bit (but not feel weighed down at your yoga class the next day). Where you might go to satisfy a craving for curry (but at $16 a plate, probably not every week).
Owners Kim and Naviya LaBarge have a string of restaurants under their belt. Their first, in Grand Marais, then the upscale Naviya’s Thai Kitchen and the more casual Naviya’s Kalico Elephant, all got rave reviews. Their new space is much smaller than those last two, with about 15 tables (and anyone with personal space issues might think even that is too many), but the food picks up right where they left off.
Naviya LaBarge, a native of Thailand, rules the kitchen, cooking to order on very hot woks. That means crispy, sweet vegetables; a tasty, smoky, charred flavor; distinct flavors and very light sauces; and, sometimes, some longer than usual waits. Despite calling the new place a brasserie, LaBarge hasn’t departed too far from the usual Asian restaurant formula: There are 60-some items on the menu, without any real surprises, from spring rolls and cream cheese wontons (a phenomenon I will never understand) to Pad Thai and green and red curries. I was happy to see swai (an under-utilized flaky white fish) and salmon fillets on offer.
The red curry, so far, gets best in show. Rich, deep, and smoky, with that signature charred flavor, it enrobed noodle-like threads of crisp bamboo shoots and silky, tender bits of beef. The menu describes it as having a heat that sneaks up on you — very true, although I’d still call it more sneaky than spicy.
The Bangkok hot plate, a showy, sizzling, fajita-style dish, is advertised as something that “robs you of your senses.” I can only assume this was a reference to heat, and yet here I am, fully in possession of all my faculties after enjoying it, and I wouldn’t call myself particularly adventurous in the heat department. No matter. It was still very good. The shrimp were plentiful, tender, and sweet, wearing a blanket of roasted minced garlic and cilantro, along with still-crisp onions, cauliflower, carrots, and broccoli. It was the sort of dish that, even if one hungry diner polished it off by herself, wouldn’t leave a trail of broken New Year’s resolutions behind it.
The turkey basil stir fry is a Minnesotanization that works especially well. The ground turkey from Ferndale Farms in Cannon Falls carries the Thai flavors — interesting but still mild — and adds a little richness. And the fried rice was a nice surprise: not a lick of grease, I mean none, making it almost a completely different dish from its more familiar namesake. It was also packed with fresh vegetables and tender chicken, but rather light on flavor. (Here’s a hint about the spice level: The regular version is exactly identical to the fried rice on the kids’ menu gobbled up by a spice-fearing 7-year-old.)
Anyone who has given up on fried egg rolls — so often leaden, greasy, with indistinguishable flavors — will want to give the crispy turkey roll and the vegetable and mushroom roll a try. Thin and tightly packed with glass noodles, they actually showcase the flavors of the fillings. (Be warned: On one occasion we got a remarkably light and ungreasy roll and on another it came out a bit greasier.)
The fried tofu — a heaping plate of hot, golden brown triangles, pillowy on the inside and crispy on the outside — is the sort of thing it would be tough to screw up, but is still easy to appreciate when done well. This was accompanied by a very coconuty peanut sauce.
The real low points came at lunch, when there are about 10 dishes on the menu for $10 with beef, chicken, tofu, or pork or $12 with shrimp, scaled-down curries and stir fries from the dinner menu. They all come with either a ginger-dressed salad or the soup of the day, and this is where things go wrong.
The salad is a complete throwaway: indifferent iceberg lettuce torn up in non-mouth-friendly sizes, tossed in a pleasantly gingery but otherwise unbalanced dressing. And the coconut lemongrass soup was thin and flat, a vinegary kind of sour, lacking the hot / sweet / salty sides of the balance of Asian flavors. The chicken was tender and the carrots crisp, but cut into four-inch sticks. (If I can’t fit it on my spoon, I can’t fit it in my mouth.) The disappointment was especially sharp because tom kha gai can be so uplifting and addictive when it is at its best.
It is in its extraordinarily early days yet — the wine and beer license was received the afternoon of my most recent visit, the server’s assistant hired just an hour before we sat — but if you visit any time soon, be aware that service is still, to put it kindly, rough. Over the course of two visits, our soup and salad were completely forgotten, a drink never appeared, we had to ask for silverware, we waited 15 minutes for someone to take our order, our kids had finished their meals and moved onto their books long before the adult entrees appeared, and a request to box the remaining food was greeted with a smile… and promptly forgotten. But, at least we weren’t the four-top to our right, who were seated 20 minutes before us and whose entrees appeared as we were signing the bill. We also watched a very polite, well-meaning young man actually suggest to customers who had just walked in the door that maybe they’d like to leave and come back later, as the restaurant was a bit full.
But everyone was so darn nice. The server was running her tail off to take care of the full dining room, with eager help from the staff and everyone was paying sincere attention to every table. I can only believe that they’ll get the ship running smoothly soon.
As for the shouts of “Authentic!” and “Inauthentic!” that always accompany discussions of ethnic food, I’ll leave those to more invested partisans. I’m not sure those conversations ever lead anywhere useful anyway. A comparison to that perfect bowl of tom kha gai you had in Thailand gives you some idea of what the chef may have been aiming for, if that’s the way she grew up eating and cooking it. Or it may not. What it doesn’t necessarily tell you is whether that dish tastes good here and now.
And, with a couple of exceptions, Naviya’s food tastes great and is very well suited to its neighborhood. It’s too early to tell whether Naviya’s will become a destination for Thai food lovers from around the metro area, but it’s definitely a spot that will keep southwest Minneapolis very happy.
Best bets: The red curry with bamboo and beef gets best in show: it features silky bits of beef in a rich and smoky curry.
Naviya’s Thai Brasserie
Thai restaurant in Minneapolis
2812 W 43rd St
Minneapolis, MN 55410
OWNER / CHEF: Kim LaBarge / Naviya LaBarge
Sat 4-9 pm
BAR: Beer + Wine
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: Yes / Yes for Weekends
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Often
ENTREE RANGE: $14-16