The two tops that border Krill’s front window are situated so close together that a chat with your neighboring diners is all but guaranteed as a complimentary menu item, like the ramekins of nam pla and Thai basil dipping sauces that sit on the restaurant’s tables.
At dinner at the new downtown Durham restaurant last month, my father and I received both a recommendation and a reaction from the folks at proximate tables: after ordering the market fish of the day—a whole black sea bass, crispy-skinned and swimming upright through a tangled botany of carrot, papaya, and scallion—as advised by the couple on our right, the man on our left leaned over and whispered, “I think I just saw it blink.”
Camaraderie is by design at Krill, an Asian-street-food-inspired restaurant co-owned by restaurateur Giorgios Bakatsias and chef Jason Lawless. The restaurant is Bakatsias’s 11th restaurant and the first of six new concepts he’s opening in North Carolina this year: Kipos Hellenic Cuisine, a coastal extension of his Greek tavern in Chapel Hill, will open in Wilmington this summer, followed by a pizza joint, a steak house, and a Spanish tapas bar in Raleigh, and Niko, a Mediterranean spot in Durham, slated to open in early 2023.
All this is ambitious. But first thing’s first: Krill.
The restaurant’s name comes from a staple ingredient in Southeast Asian cooking—typically fermented and used in the form of fish sauce—and many of its dishes are anchored by the tiny crustacean, whose concentrated umami flavor creates a sturdy base to be overlaid with pops of acid, sweetness, and spice.
Everything I tried—the sea bass, Peking duck lumpia rolls, blistered miso shishito peppers, squid ink tagliatelle with crabmeat and lobster sauce, and udon noodles with mussels and uni butter—included ingredients that punched every spot on my palate but were balanced elegantly enough that even the gentlest flavors poked through. Krill’s menu is compact and split into six categories—hot and cold appetizers, noodle bowls, fried rice, skewers, and large plates—and each dish is served family style.
“Small things have a big influence in life,” Bakatsias says. “Krill is a small gem that hopefully makes a difference in the community.”
But even before Krill opened its doors, some members of the community—and in particular, members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community—had misgivings about Krill’s presentation and rollout. On Reddit, one user called out the restaurant for “treating Asian cuisine as a single genre,” noting that “restaurant empires like [Bakatsias’s] that span a dozen different cuisines seldom retain the authenticity or nuances of the cultures they pull from.”
Others took to Instagram to denounce Krill’s decor, which includes a painting of an Asian woman with her breasts exposed and a large mural of a cleavage-baring Asian woman who is shrouded in palm leaves and surrounded by animals—a zebra, a dragon, a cheetah—that, for the most part, wouldn’t be found in Southeast Asia and were presumably chosen for their “exotic” aesthetic. (The restaurant also features a mural of the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain—who is white, clothed, and identified by name—hovering over a bowl of noodles.)
In an Instagram Story, Raleigh florist Deana Nguyen, who has worked for years in the restaurant industry, criticized Krill’s decorative use of Asian women as well as an Instagram post from the restaurant that reads, “We hope you’ve been practicing with your chopsticks… because it’s time for some #FarEastFunk”—as “perpetuat[ing] Asian stereotypes and fetishization.” She also cited a quote where Bakatsias, who is white, describes finding ingredients in Taiwan that “we’re never confronted with in this part of the world” as “classic colonizer mentality.”
Asian-owned restaurants with said “vibrant culture and ingredients” already exist in the Triangle, Nguyen wrote, adding that they’ve “been here working their asses off.” (The INDY reached out to Nguyen and a few others who had voiced criticism to the INDY over email, but they declined to comment; in a text, Nguyen wrote that she felt commenting further would offer “little reward and no change.”)
This pushback is ensconced, of course, in ongoing debates in the food world about just what constitutes appropriation versus appreciation; in 2019, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, for instance, found himself at the center of a heated dispute after Chinese food critic Angela Hui denounced his London restaurant Lucky Cat for cultural tokenism.
When asked by the INDY about these comments, Bakatsias acknowledged the pushback and says he’s listening.
“As an immigrant owned business, we at Giorgios Hospitality Group have been sincere in our mission to celebrate all cultures and cuisines with passion and respect,” Bakatsias wrote in an email. “Please know that we are listening to the feedback—which has been both incredibly positive and, in a few instances from the AAPI community, very critical. We appreciate each of these comments and we are working through them with our team so that we may continue to grow within our community.”
When I visited the restaurant recently, Bakatsias made a quiet entrance, though his eminence was palpable; crowned in his signature fedora, he strolled over to my table and wordlessly gave my dad a 10-second shoulder massage—no need to introduce himself.
Bakatsias has spent years stewing over the idea of Krill—he sold his share of his first Asian culinary venture, Jujube, more than a decade ago, but held on to the “love affair with Asian cuisine” he developed after spending time in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Thailand—and says the concept started to seem viable when he met Lawless, a chef he hired to revamp his Durham restaurant Parizade in 2016.
Lawless worked at a string of high-profile New York restaurants before moving to North Carolina and trained under world-renowned chefs Gray Kunz and Floyd Cardoz, two pioneering forces in Asian fusion and Indian cuisine who died, unexpectedly, within a month of each other in 2020.
“Ever since they passed, I was like, ‘I need to use their flavors,’” Lawless says.
Now chef and co-owner at Krill, Lawless has his chance.
“I can feel them in the walls,” he says. “I can hear them in the back of my head as we’re cooking.”
When I ask Lawless to tell me about Krill’s menu, he first answers as if he’s just taken a bite of something and is narrating the experience in real time—“the spice, the heat, the acid, the freshness, the crunch of a radish, the balance”—then elaborates: while his dishes generally adhere to flavors of Southeast Asian cuisine, he makes an effort to incorporate flavors from different cultures (the squid ink tagliatelle and the uni udon mussels show some Italian and French influence, for example), and he doesn’t want to do anything too mainstream: if he were to feature something like pad thai or bibimbap as a special, he’d want to “add some funk.”
According to Bakatsias, Lawless’s understanding of Asian cuisine, bolstered by the expertise of the kitchen staff, allows Krill the flexibility to play around with traditional dishes without worrying about besmirching their integrity. Time will tell how the community receives it.
“We wanted to have enough funkiness to honor [the Bakatsias brand] but at the same time to respect the culture,” Bakatsias says. “If you’re going to break the boundaries, you need to understand the roots.”
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