When a nationally respected critic declares in only the most revered food magazine in American history that a restaurant is the "single best Thai restaurant in the country," it's hard not to sit up and pay attention.
Now, ten years after the Pulitzer Prize-winning Jonathan Gold penned those words about Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas in Gourmet magazine, the restaurant has opened a branch in New York.
The excitement and the buzz has been palpable since its early November opening, naturally. So the first chance we got, the lovely and insatiable Gael Greene and I were making plans to meet there for dinner.
Would it live up to the hype? We were eager to find out…
At first glance, the dining room is pleasant enough but generally unremarkable. The space, which used to house Cru (a marvelous little restaurant helmed by the talented Shea Gallante that earned three stars in the New York Times) is plainly decorated, not unlike its Vegas mothership.
Despite the care and consideration that I presume have gone into the opening of this restaurant, it is immediately obvious that there are a few flaws that owner Saipin Chutima and her husband Bill clearly have not anticipated, however.
For starters, some of the tables are too close together. Ours, for instance, is so close to the servers' station that waiters and bus boys start playing an endless game of bumper cars with Gael's chair from the moment we are seated. We protest — repeatedly — asking them to please try to avoid violently slamming into her every few minutes. But the bumping persists — which, on its face is appalling enough even without the added fact that there are few apologies offered here. Even when Gael switches seats, the bumping persist as waiters inexplicably lead an endless stream of diners through the sliver of space separating her chair from the next table instead of walking them down the much wider walkway just a few feet away.
At this point, it seems an accurate conclusion that this is either not the smartest of waitstaffs or the most considerate of its diners. It's one or the other — either way, it's unacceptable.
Now, I'm not opposed to rude and antagonistic — in fact, in Singapore, I'm often suspicious of hawkers or restaurants where the service is good. If the food is good, they don't usually have to try so hard in the hospitality department.
At Lotus of Siam, this is not streetside dining, however. And with entrees that range from $14 to $36, a certain modicum of civility is to be expected.
Not to mention good food. Which turns out to be hard to find here, unfortunately.
We begin by sharing the boneless chicken wings stuffed with minced chicken and vegetables and deep-fried ($6), which arrives looking rather puny. The word "wings" appears to be inaccurate here — I'm not quite sure but it certainly looks like there is but one wing on the plate. This turns out to be decent, if a little on the dry and bland side.
I have higher hopes for the Northern larb ($12), a dish of minced pork dressed up with spices and fresh Thai herbs.
There's a very slight kick to this dish — but it's a real dog whistle of a kick. You really have to be paying close attention to notice it. Overall, though, the most remarkable thing about this dish is how shockingly unremarkable it is. The spices and herbs are barely detectable.
Ditto the kang khiao wan, "the most popular curry in Bangkok," according to the menu, which we've ordered with pork ($18). As green curries go, this is among the blandest I've ever tasted. And the pork is so overcooked it takes some hefty gnawing to work on the plank-like strips.
With a few avid pad thai fans at the table, the dish is a must. The shrimp version (which cost $17; chicken, beef, pork or tofu versions cost $14), comes with four large, beautiful shrimp but a disappointingly small scoop of noodles which is about the size of a woman's fist.
The noodles are sweet — which is a nice touch — but that's about all that is special about it. For $17, the dish seems far from worth it — I've had far better versions all over New York City for much less than that.
The "drunken noodle" had been recommended so we sample the soft shell crab version ($23). While the noodles in spicy basil sauce are not bad, the soft shell crab tastes off, unfresh, making me immediately queasy to be eating it.
The crispy duck in Penang curry sauce and cognac ($26) is by far the best dish on the table, winning only because it is merely decent. The duck is crispy and the curry sauce is sufficiently spicy, as billed. I can't complain there.
Perhaps realizing that our meal is not going so great, the kitchen sends out a complimentary dish — the khao soi shortrib ($22), a Burmese-style noodle dish with braised shortrib, coconut and curry sauce…
…which comes with a range of condiments. (Be warned, the powdered chili is amazingly hot — chili novices should avoid this at all costs.)
The dish overall is delicious — the noodles are flavorful and the beef is a delight. This restaurant could be halfway good if the kitchen put some of the effort it did into this dish into the rest of its offerings.
Although I'm a little leery of keeping the food coming, given what we've sampled so far, dessert is a must. The first is a sticky rice dish topped with an eggy custard that bears the distinct taste of sour milk.
The fruit salad with chunks of coconut and Thai jewels (bits of crunchy water chestnuts coated with tapioca starch and dyed red) housemade ice-cream fares better — it's a refreshing end to the evening.
I realize it's hard to live up to the reputation this restaurant came to New York with — and I had gone in trying not to measure it against the lavish praise it's first outpost has gotten.
With its high prices, however, Lotus of Siam should have the basic decency to simply try harder. Bad bordering on rude service, skimpy portions, lousy food — a little bit of one of these aspects is fine in a restaurant. But it's not fine when a restaurant hits a trifecta with them — and not when the serving of each flaw is disturbingly generous.
Having never been to the Vegas restaurant, I can't say if it's the best Thai restaurant in the country. As for the New York Lotus of Siam, however, forget the country, state or even the city. It's certainly nowhere near the best Thai restaurant in its neighborhood.
Lotus of Siam, 24 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York; 212.529.1700