Last winter, the only sign of something stirring at this strange yellow box of a building in Gert Town was the light in the windows, shining late into the night.
That was from Hieu Than and a small circle of family and friends burning the midnight oil for what would become Kin.
Tiny, far from the city’s many burgeoning restaurant rows and coming from an unheralded chef and first-time restaurateur, Kin seemed like an outlier in an increasingly crowded dining scene, and maybe an unlikely gambit.
But since opening in March, Kin has become a sensation, rewarding those willing to venture off the grid, and perhaps outside their comfort zone, with an often-exhilarating rejuvenation of fusion cuisine.
Yes, the term fusion is generally unwelcome at restaurants today, as it might evoke the excesses of the 1990s. “Mashup” is now the preferred moniker.
But fusion is precisely what’s happening in Kin’s kitchen, which melds East and West with modern American foodie bravado, a farm-to-table bounty of bursting vegetables and delicate herbs and a variegated palette of distilled, brewed, fermented and steeped sauces and oils. If it was always like this during fusion’s earlier reign, the style would not have earned its bad rap in the first place.
This comes through in creamy, cumulus whips of burrata ($12) in a soy dashi broth, with the acid rush of cherry tomatoes. It’s the garlic-and-chili chorus of a Vietnamese sate sauce worked over a beautifully browned Cornish hen ($23) with umami bursts of shiitake. It’s the way a clutch of crab claws slots into the curve of lemony shrimp ($14), angled just so against melon-studded couscous, splashed with vinaigrette.
The approach is not without pitfalls, like duck confit ($16) with queso fresco gnudi, pico de gallo and summer succotash, which are fine individually but never seem to belong on the same plate. Then, however, along comes tiramiso ($11) — which isn’t a typo but rather is a mellow, sweet, darkly salty combination of miso with the Italian classic — and all is right.
A New Orleans native, Than said he wanted Kin to function as a different kind of restaurant, one where more of the kitchen staff has more of a say. The printed menu prominently lists three of them — chef Nhat “Nate” Nguyen and sous chefs Nate Kruse and Matt Engle — without even mentioning Than himself, who is always at work in his kitchen in apron and headband.
In practice, such kitchen democracy has led to considerably different menus cycling through over the past four months. Most recently, the entrees have trended heartier, larger and commensurately more expensive.
A good example is the thick-cut pork chop ($27), which sounds conventional but is wreathed with interesting flavors, starting with crisp, plump rice and mushroom dumplings, roasted peaches and a green sauce tingling with the lemon/pepper spice of sorrel.
Than said the next phase for Kin will see a return to a lighter touch, which has me rooting for a reprise of an earlier lamb dish ($22), which molded the meat around sugarcane skewers for a grilled sweetness, over tubes of garganelli pasta gone green from a minty, citrusy pesto.
So much change so quickly might smack of growing pains, but at Kin it also seems like part of the program. The entire enterprise feels like a test kitchen, which brings thrills but also some caveats.
While open kitchens may be common now, Kin is more like a kitchen with some dining areas built around it. Seating is limited to a pair of narrow dining counters and a communal table. The effusively welcoming staff try to maneuver in these confines, but there are few seats where you won’t get nudged or bumped.
All of this matters less at lunchtime, when Kin’s menu shifts to a short list of noodle dishes. It’s a more homogenously Asian approach still imbued with the kitchen’s originality and eye for presentation.
Ramen is the centerpiece, with very richly flavored broth, springy noodles and, in the shoyo ($15) example, a tableau of pulled chicken; radish; soft, garlicky fish cakes; and vivid greens. The “dirty vermicelli” ($7), however, is the showstopper — and a potential heart stopper — with ground rabbit, chicken livers, sliced duck and probably a few other proteins strewn through oil-slicked rice noodles, with a frayed flap of deeply crunchy fried chicken skin on top.
Kin is missing some features you expect to come standard at ambitious restaurants — proper tables being the most obvious (it’s also BYOB, though a license is in the works).
But it has something all restaurants covet, and that’s a palpable energy both on the plate and around the room, in the buzz of people excited to see what’s next here.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.