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Krill Restaurant takes a ‘fresh’ approach to Southeast Asian flavors

Krill Restaurant takes its name from a small sea crustacean that lies near the bottom of the food chain, but is a main source of nutrition for much larger creatures such as the baleen whale. The name represents the restaurant’s wish to nourish the surrounding community through fresh and healthy plates. Opened in late July this year, this modestly-sized restaurant is tucked slightly away from the busiest section of downtown Durham, right next to event venue The Fruit. It is the newest addition to the Giorgios Hospitality Group, the restaurant group that owns, among others, Parizade, Nasher Museum Cafe and Vin Rouge. 

Small as Krill may be, it is on par with any other restaurants in the group in terms of menu quality and atmosphere. Walking into the restaurant, guests will immediately notice the warm-colored lanterns hanging by the window, small wooden tables and chairs, ceiling lights encapsulated in weaved baskets and bamboo in small pots on tables. Near the bar, there is a mural of the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain sitting on a stool while eating casual street food. Out on the patio area, dining tables are surrounded by greenery and under string lights. Together, the setting gives off a fun, young and convivial feeling. 

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Head Chef Jason Lawless, who is also the Executive Chef at Parizade, remarked that the idea for Krill Restaurant has been around for about six years. Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, this long overdue restaurant is finally realized as, according to Giorgios Bakatsias – the mastermind behind Giorgios Hospitality Group, “a way to celebrate Jason’s talent and our love for Asian cuisine.”

Lawless was first drawn to Southeast Asian cuisines for the versatility and freshness of their ingredients. “ My passion was the spices, the freshness of the ingredients. How you can use this one ingredient in so many different ways between these different cultures,” said Lawless.  “The citrus, the spices and herbs. I love fresh mint, fresh cilantro and fresh scallion. I can't get enough of it.”

He attributed much of his work at Krill to inspiration from the late chefs Gray Kunz and Floyd Cardoz, both of whom he received training in Asian cuisine preparation from. “A lot of [the menu at Krill] reflects my culinary career mainly through Floyd and Gray. I think of them [when I make certain dishes here,] like the pork ribs, the shumai and the glass noodles.”

Continuing on the influences of Chef Kunz and Chef Cardoz, Lawless shared how it is possible to take a “slow dining approach” to down-to-earth food. Krill calls its food street food, albeit with thoughtfulness in preparation and various layers of flavors and textures. “Gray and Floyd were always [asking] ‘How can you make something better?’ and it doesn't have to be difficult. It can just be adding an herb or a citrus. One thing that Floyd always said was: everything has to have heat. Heat is good for the soul. It brings your endorphins up, even if you don't taste the heat. If it's in there, it makes your body feel better.” By heat, Lawless was referring to spices, especially chili spices. “[We can ask] ‘How can we elevate things without making them too fussy?’ We're not sitting here garnishing with tweezers and edible flowers. The food here is homey, it is down to earth. It's honest food, but we try to take a little different technique to it, bringing freshness and excitement to the dishes.”

An inevitable challenge for restaurants with ethnic food is the problem of authenticity. To this challenge Krill has its own philosophy – aiming to present original flavors from Southeast Asia “with no boundaries.” Lawless said, “We want to be original but not [necessarily] authentic. We want to be true to the techniques and ingredients, and true to the dishes. But we also want to make it our own. So, we're always trying to be creative and [asking] ‘How can we think outside the box?’”

If Lawless could only recommend three dishes to any newcomer to the restaurant, it would be the ceviche, crispy market fish and stir-fried glass noodle.

Per his recommendation, my friend and I ordered the above three dishes and a grilled mango and arugula salad. The ceviche was unmistakably refreshing, thanks to its mint and citrus flavors. White vinegar elevated the freshness while maintaining a simplicity in taste. Diced raw tuna in the dish was incredibly tender, and when dipped in the broth in the bowl, the tanginess lingers in the mouth. 

The stir-fried glass noodle had an obvious Vietnamese flair – tart and spicy. The house-made chili paste sambal to the richness and spiciness without being too piquant. The crushed peanuts on top added a bit of rugged texture to the soft and springy noodles. 

Umami was perhaps the best descriptor for the skin of the crispy market fish. It was chewy, seasoned yet not oily. Under the skin, the roe was clear-white, soft and melts in your mouth. Cushioning the whole fish was papaya salad, with julienned carrot, green papaya and green mango soaked in nam pla — a traditional Thai fish sauce that is simultaneously savory, sour, sweet and spicy — topped with cilantro and crushed peanuts. The best part about this dish begins when the fish is halfway eaten, sinks further into the nam pla vinaigrette and becomes almost one with the papaya salad.

The grilled mango and arugula salad was the most creative dish we ordered. The cooking team added miso and sesame seed to the arugula and mangos — condiments not usually found on Southeast Asian tables. Thin slices of radish and cucumber cubes were tossed into the salad to diversify the texture. On the bottom layed a circle of rice crisps which, when eaten with the greens and mango, served to ground the whole dish. This salad is likely the best salad I have had and certainly the most flavorful yet airy one.

My personal favorite out of the four dishes was the ceviche. It created a balance between simplistic elegance and multiplicity of flavors. It was invigorating. For those fairly new to Southeast Asian food, the stir-fried glass noodle would also be a good place to start because its playful texture paired with savory herb seasoning make it too easy to love. 

Freshness stood out as a consistent theme throughout these four plates, achieved by mint leaves, citruses, chili spices and coriander. It would be an understatement to say not one of the dishes we ordered failed to bring excitement to the table. The freshness of both the flavors and the restaurant’s approach to Southeast Asian cuisine left a lasting impression on me, beckoning a reliving of this culinary delight.

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