New Yunnan restaurants

Lotus Blue and Yunnan Kitchen introduce New Yorkers to the delicate flavors of southwestern China.

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  • Photograph: Virginia Rollison

    Banana blossom salad at Lotus Blue

  • Photograph: Virginia Rollison

    Stir-fried pressed smoked tofu at Lotus Blue

  • Photograph: Virginia Rollison

    Roasted duck at Lotus Blue

  • Photograph: Virginia Rollison

    Lotus Blue

  • Photograph: Virginia Rollison

    Lotus Blue

Photograph: Virginia Rollison

Banana blossom salad at Lotus Blue

The cooking is a bit gutsier across town at Lotus Blue, where the kitchen ruckus is entirely hidden from view. Lounge music lulls this sultry space, with teardrop lanterns and a lotus-flower mural on a red wall.


The place has Chinese owners and a Chinese chef, though none are from Yunnan. Head chef Kian Lam Kho, a Singapore native with Chinese origins, is a culinary instructor and food blogger making his professional restaurant debut. He explores the same territory as Post does, but with a grittier take.


Kho serves a potato snack too—the tuber is a Yunnan staple—tossing fried matchsticks with herbs and dried chilies. And he offers his own spin on that classic chrysanthemum salad, drenching the leaves in a more complex sweet-salty mix of black vinegar, soy, garlic and chilies.


Honey-glazed duck, with juicy flesh under dark copper skin, is certainly tasty, but not terribly distinctive—there’s plenty to choose from that’s much more exciting. You’ve probably never had shrimp, for example, like Kho’s head-on monsters showered in a funky sweet-and-sour mix of chili oil and candied olives. The banana-blossom-and-sweet-mango salad, garnished with peanuts and mint, is a bright and refreshing taste of the jungle. And strips of pressed and smoked tofu stir-fried with pineapple hunks and garlic chives are just as intriguing. Even simple fried rice has unusual zip, from diced pickled turnips mixed with ground pork.


So much of this food, as at Yunnan Kitchen too, functions like a culinary bellwether, foretelling the very small world the city’s becoming. As diners grow increasingly literate in international cuisines, it’s an exciting time to explore regional flavors making their New York debuts.


 


Vitals


 


Eat this: Yunnan Kitchen: Charred eggplant, scrambled egg with jasmine flowers, fried potato balls, crispy whole shrimp, lamb meatballs. Lotus Blue: Chrysanthemum salad, banana blossom salad, shrimp with candied olives, stir-fried smoked tofu.


Drink this: While Yunnan Kitchen awaits its liquor license, you might try a pot of mountain grass tea. At Lotus Blue, you should opt for an icy Sapporo over the sweet, clubby cocktails and the overpriced list of generic wines.


Sit here: The casual open-plan dining room at Yunnan Kitchen features small tables with a great view of the kitchen. Meanwhile, the big table in the middle of the room at Lotus Blue is a prime spot for a big group banquet.


Conversation piece: Yunnan Kitchen’s Travis Post connected with Erika Chou through an ad on Craigslist. The two traveled through that region last January, collecting many of the pieces that now decorate the restaurant. The original Lotus Blue in Beijing serves Thai, not Yunnan, cuisine, but both restaurants were named for the Tintin adventure book The Blue Lotus (first published in 1936), which is set in China.


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