Review: Lotus of Siam
A Vegas phenomenon hits NYC---but not without some baggage.
Fri Jan 28 2011
Time Out Ratings<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5
New Yorkers love Thai food—just ask the city's delivery people. But the neutered pad si-ewe we scarf from a carton in front of the flatscreen is about as genuinely Asian as chicken chow mein. Until recently, in fact, the only Thai noodles and curries not tempered for the American palate were sequestered in the far reaches of Queens. But that changed late last year when Lotus of Siam, a cult spot in Las Vegas, opened a branch in the Village.
"The single best Thai restaurant in North America," Gourmet critic Jonathan Gold once wrote of the more down-and-dirty original. While the New York offshoot might not be quite so extraordinary—the menu is far shorter (in Vegas it includes 132 items) —from the moment it opened it was already producing the best Thai cuisine in Manhattan.
Just how long it will hold that distinction is anyone's guess. Last week, in one of the fastest restaurant-world divorces in memory, the new Lotus of Siam split with the old one. The Chutima family, which runs the Las Vegas venture out of a strip mall, withdrew from the project, citing irreconcilable differences with New York partner Roy Welland—the financier--wine collector who also owned Cru in this space.
While the menu will remain intact for now, without matriarch Saipin Chutima's hand in the kitchen, it's hard to imagine the cooking won't suffer. Will the northern larb salad—the classic warm salad made with minced meat or fowl (pork, in this case)—be quite so artfully balanced, the lemongrass, scallions, green chilies and lime quite so harmonious?
If the staff she installed has already mastered her menu, the chili burn in her dishes might remain as nuanced as ever—potent, yes, but not blindingly so. There's a fine art to making spicy food taste of more than just heat. Before the partnership crumbled, the restaurant's crispy-rice and Thai-sausage salad—a funky starter—had a fiery kick with bright peanuts and ginger creeping in underneath. A simple green curry was just as complex, the silky sauce fragrant with kafir lime and cilantro, served on Thai baby eggplants and delicate slivers of poached chicken. There was beautifully crispy duck in a sumptuous panang curry sauce enriched with cognac; wide drunken noodles were elegantly stacked with greaseless hunks of fried flaky sea bass.
Though you'll find the same delectable dishes on the menu in Vegas, the New York renditions cost quite a bit more (those noodles are $28). The haute cuisine prices are an odd fit for such a frequently frantic and casual setting, lit with white paper lanterns and packed with far too many small wooden tables. Even in this manic space, however, the food at its peak is well worth the price. Whether the restaurant's best days are already behind it remains to be seen. While you wait it out, here's one thing to remember: New York's original cult Thai spot, Sripraphai in Woodside, is easily reachable via a quick ride on the 7.
Eat this: Northern larb, green curry chicken, duck panang, sea bass drunken noodles
Drink this: The vast wine list, which offers whole and half bottles, is heavily weighted toward sweet German and mineral French whites that are a fine counterpoint to fiery Thai chilies. The Paul Blanck pinot gris from Alsace ($44) is a great midpriced option.
Sit here: The dining room can feel awfully congested—particularly if you're seated in the middle of the floor. Try to grab one of the booths on the side, or share a few casual bites up front around the bar.
Conversation piece: After Bill and Saipin Chutima pulled out of the project, their daughter, Pennapa, told The New York Times her parents had hoped to open a much more affordable restaurant, "where families and college students feel comfortable," but that partner Roy Welland had other ideas for the place.
24 Fifth Ave at 9th St (212-529-1700). Subway: B, D, F, M to W 4th St. Mon--Sat 5:30--11pm. Average main course: $26.