Monday, November 15, 2010
Lotus of Siam: A Gamble on Manhattan
Finding great Thai food in NYC used to mean having to catch the 7 train up to Queens. That all changed when Lotus of Siam officially opened its doors to the public last week. Occupying Cru's former space on the corner of Fifth Avenue, Lotus of Siam inherited an impressive wine cellar and an equally lofty set of expectations. It was bound to happen after Jonathan Gold of Gourmet Magazine anointed Lotus of Siam's Vegas outpost as, "the single best Thai restaurant in North America." Accustomed to over-sauced, sugar-laden, dumbed down versions of Thai cuisine, it was only natural that New York was ready to embrace this legendary restaurant. Having seen Lotus of Siam's comparatively "expensive" prices and being the cynic that I am, I arrived for my pre-opening dinner reservation a bit skeptical to say the least. But after enjoying seven courses of well thought and executed food, all the cynicism in the world couldn't deny the fact that Lotus of Siam is a potential game changer and is already firmly entrenched in the discussion as the city's best Thai restaurant.
But before proceeding, perhaps its best to take a step back for a moment and provide some context. Among the immortal culinary deities that dot the opulent Vegas casinos such as Robuchon, Savoy and Stratta, Chef Saipin Chutima has managed to transform her humble strip mall location, away from all the glamor and glitz of the strip, into a first class dining destination. Following in the wake of Cru's demise what started as mere rumors quickly led to an official announcement that Chef Chutima would be bringing her operation to the New York City.
Upon arrival, MW and I were immediately led to our table after checking in with the hostess. Seated in a corner against the wall, it provided a full view of the minimalist dining room. Out of necessity, our server for the evening was actually the restaurant's sommelier. Seeing how it was only the restaurant's second official night being open, service was slow at times, but generally good, with no egregious faux pas. Wanting to start with something different, we chose to begin with two cocktails. MW's Wai Khru - Ransom Old Tom Gin, Calamansi, Lime, Cilantro - was exotic and refreshing. My Kentucky Apple - Maker's Mark Bourbon, Carpano Antica, Apple Cider, Lemon, Cinnamon - was the essence of fall with the apple cider and cinnamon nicely balanced with the bourbon. Given that the restaurant was short staffed and due to the chaotic nature associated with just opening, our beverages arrived in the middle of our second course -- and were appropriately comped.
Unlike our drinks, food service was straight forward and lacked any noticeable delay. The seven course menu contained three identical items with the remaining four each having two options. In the interest of trying as many dishes as possible, we ordered both options, allowing us to sample everything on the menu. First to arrive was the Tuna Koi Soy - Diced Raw Tuna, tossed with Cilantro, Mint and Kaffir Lime. Expecting a finer dice a la your typical tartare, we were surprised by the rather large cubes of tuna, more akin to a Hawaiian Poke. The fresh tuna was lightly dressed but packed quite a flavor punch. The dish was brightened by the lime and refreshing cilantro and mint. An excellent counterpoint to the pleasant burn from the chili. If this course was to be indicative of the remainder of our meal, then we were in store for a treat.
Next were a quartet of different appetizers. The Nam Kao Tod - Crispy Rice with Thai Sausage, Fresh Chili, Ginger, Peanuts and Lime - was quite novel to me as far as Thai food goes. The crispy rice and peanuts accented by the savory sausage, chili and lime was like being hit by one bold flavor after another. Definitely worthy of being called the restaurant's signature dish.
The Pik Kai Yao Sai - Boneless Chicken Wings stuffed with Minced Chicken and Vegetables - was relatively tame compared to the flavor assault of the previous dish. Still, from an execution standpoint, the dish was successful, as the chicken was well fried (e.g. the crisp exterior stayed on the chicken) and the stuffing remained moist.
The Koong Sarong - Crispy Fried Shrimp Roll wrapped in Bacon - was reminiscent of a dish we had at Sripraphai, only with bacon. Lotus of Siam's version was superior, but as a whole it was rather unremarkable and not something worth ordering again.
The Kai Satay - Grilled Chicken Satay with Cucumber Salad and Peanut Sauce - was the weakest of the four appetizers, and while the chicken was moist and perfectly grilled, the accompanying peanut sauce was one dimensional, and the cucumber salad was underseasoned.
This was followed by a duo of soups. The Tom Kha Hed - Spicy Coconut Milk Soup with Oyster, Maitake and Shimeji Mushrooms - lacked the advertised spice but was still enjoyable. The mushrooms provided a welcome textural component to the slightly sweetened soup.
Whereas the previous soup contained a hint of sweetness from the coconut milk, the Tom Yum Koong - Spicy Sour Soup with Head on Prawn, Lime, Lemongrass and Cilantro - was mouth-puckeringly sour. Containing a trace of funk, the soup had a rich seafood stock and a wonderfully cooked prawn. This easily surpassing all other versions I've tried.
Even the ubiquitous Som Thum - Green Papaya Salad with Chili, Lime Peanuts and Tomato - managed to stand out. Containing a noticeable amount of heat from the chili, it was balanced by the crisp green papaya and acid from the tomatoes and peanuts.
The Yum Nuah - Grilled Beef Ribeye, sliced and tossed with Red Onion, Lime, Thai Herbs and Lettuces - was a stunning example of Lotus of Siam's ability to transform this popular Thai salad into a more refined version without sacrificing its original flavors. Opposed to your ordinary Thai beef salad composed of thin strips of generic beef, this salad contained thick strips of medium rare grilled ribeye, achieving a level of flavor complexity like none we've encountered before.
Before our next course, our server returned and helped guide us through the restaurants truncated wine list, consisting largely of German rieslings. We selected a good Gunderloch Nackenheimer Rothenberg Riesling Spätlese (2002) that stood up well to the heat of each course due to its high amount of residual sugars.
Our fifth course was Soft Shell Crab "Drunken Noodle" - Crispy Soft Shell Crab on Sautéed Flat Rice Noodles with Fresh Chili, Garlic and Thai Basil. There was little not to love about this dish, with a crisp soft shell crab sitting on a bed of al dente rice noodles mixed with spicy chili and fragrant Thai basil. There's no doubt why this is one of the restaurant's most popular dishes.
But equally as impressive, at least to us, was the Sea bass King Sot - Steamed Seabass with Ginger Sauce, Napa Cabbage, Black Wood Ear Mushrooms, Celery and Carrot. Most impressive about this course was the perfectly cooked sea bass, totally unexpected from most Thai restaurants. Moist meat flaked off and was consumed with a flavorful but light ginger sauce-- which acted more like a broth than a thick sauce.
Our final savory course were two curries served with sticky rice in a colorful bamboo container. The Kang Kalee Kai - Mild Yellow Curry with Chicken, Coconut Milk, Simmered Potato and Carrot - was more refined than most, which have a tendency of being cloyingly sweet. Although it lacked the spice preferred in our curries, we were amazed by how incredibly moist the chicken remained. Combined with the sticky rice, this was a satisfying dish.
In contrast, the Kang Khiao Wan - Green Curry with Beef, Coconut Milk, Thai Eggplant, Bamboo Shoot and Thai Basil - was much weaker. Containing a stronger spice flavor, we were unimpressed with the thin strips of beef, reminding us of the same generic meat from your corner take out joint. Redeeming itself slightly, were the hearty pieces of Thai eggplant and crunchy bamboo shoots that, in contrast with the beef, provided something worth eating.
Listed plainly as "Thai Dessert," I noticed tables receiving one of two different desserts. Other tables received a Thai Custard over Sticky Rice, while we received a bowl consisting of Water Chestnuts, Coconut Milk and Pomegranate. Suspended in a sweet coconut milk "soup" were cubes of pomegranate jelly containing bits of crunchy water chestnuts. While the dessert was certainly refreshing, it felt a bit like a throwaway course. But to be fair, I've never come to Thai restaurants seeking out dessert and would most likely opt for the custard if I felt so inclined on a repeat visit.
Those with the pleasure of having eaten at both Lotus of Siam locations may be quick to point out, as is usually the case, how the original tastes and feels more authentic than the one in Manhattan. Seeing how I've only visited the New York location, with a limited menu at that, I can't compare the two. Yet, despite the fact that they're still clearly working out some minor kinks (i.e., cocktails arriving late, inconsistent spice levels), Lotus of Siam has already managed to eclipse almost anything currently available in New York. Coming all the way from Vegas to personally train the kitchen staff herself, Chef Chutima should already feel a sense of accomplishment. If Lotus of Siam isn't New York's best Thai restaurant already, it will only be a matter of time before it claims that title.
Lotus of Siam
24 5th Avenue
New York, NY 10003
To see all our pics click the flickr link.