What does $5 get you these days? At Kin, a consistently unconventional New Orleans eatery, the answer is a plate of dumplings that burst with flavor, envelop a surprise and give a lesson on rebooting a restaurant in our city's increasingly competitive dining scene.

Neatly formed and precisely arranged, these dumplings look more highbrow than you expect from the price tag. What’s inside, though, is more unexpected still. The first version I tried was chicken Marsala, the Sicilian standby delivering its buttery, dark wine savor under a delicate noodle casing. A bit of provolone topped each dumpling, all lacy and griddle-crisped at the edges.

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Advocate staff photo by Ian McNulty - Beef Stroganoff dumplings are part of the changing menu of small plates at Kin, a consistently unconventional eatery in New Orleans.

Kin makes a few different types of dumplings on any given day, and the fillings are always changing. Another example was butternut squash, light tasting and still attuned to cooler weather. Once, the filling was beef stroganoff, finished with a mouth-coating glaze and bright, al dente green beans. I've had dumplings here filled with curried chicken and wild rice, and a "shrimp eggroll dumpling," with sweet shrimp and the softened crunch of cabbage and carrot within.

In a way, this is the style that first put Kin and its unlikely location on the map. It's also part of a significant change that has played out here in its second year. 

Turning heads, shifting gears

A young chef named Hieu Than opened Kin in spring 2015 in a small box of a building on a Gert Town cross street that most people zoom past on their way somewhere else.

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Advocate photo by J.T. BLATTY-- The chef Hieu Than opened his restaurant Kin in 2015 and retooled the approach in the second year for a more casual style.

But this restaurant immediately turned heads. It was ambitious, especially given the inauspicious setting, with intricate, multifaceted entrees and even its own in-house bread program.

The space is essentially a dining counter with an open kitchen, one communal table and very little elbow room. It has always felt a bit experimental, and Than’s experiment eventually had to change.

His initial menus blew me away, and I heard raves from others. But with a tiny, somewhat awkward space and no liquor license, this fine dining outlier was not going to make it. His lunchtime menu revolved around ramen, and this less-expensive approach proved more viable.

So last year, Than moved to a more casual menu and recast a new version of his restaurant, with a different tenor and a lower price range.

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Mazemen noodles served as a vegan preparation at Kin, where the revamped menu functions as a creative noodle house.

Ramen is a big part of the new Kin. But even if you've accepted that traditional ramen or ramen in the hands of chefs is very different from the packaged convenience food of the same name, calling Kin a ramen joint undersells what's actually happening here.

Today, the restaurant brings the same East-meets-West energy of its first menus, now writ small. There's usually a dish or two that resemble the old days, like red snapper under a deeply crunchy crust with cilantro spaetzle. Mainly, though, Kin 2.0 is a modern noodle house.

There's a restorative pork bone broth in the "huxta bowl," a cheeky name for a soup built around garlicky confit pork. There's a bright (and often vegan) combination of springy, peppery mazemen noodles and vegetables for a light lunch. And there's an assortment of small plates, like those dumplings or the precisely composed lemon grass chicken wings, that beg to be bar food, even though the restaurant remains BYOB. The chef's eye, his style and his standards remain clear, even if the format has changed.

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Advocate staff photo by Ian McNulty - Red snapper under a thick seared curst was paired with cilantro spaeztle at Kin, a casual eatery with its own style in New Orleans.

The sweet, drip-style ice coffee with condensed milk is the strongest beverage on this menu, and it’s also the most direct connection to the chef’s Vietnamese heritage.

Than is part of that second-generation Vietnamese community in our city that is now making its own mark on New Orleans food, in ways not necessarily constrained to the traditional staples.

It’s been fascinating to taste the results around town, with the examples of Ba Chi Canteen, Namese, FharmacyMint Modern Vietnamese Bistro and T2 Street Food adding to their own influences to the equation. At Kin, it’s been particularly gratifying to see it play out twice now.

  

Kin

4600 Washington Ave., (504) 304-8557

Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday


Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.