In 1994, when chef Saipin Chutima took over at Renu Nakorn—located in a strip mall 20 minutes south of downtown L.A.—it was already one of the best-regarded Thai restaurants in Southern California. Responding to its spicy Isaan cooking, Jonathan Gold noted enthusiastically that “a trip to Renu Nakorn can be a little like taking your tongue to the Leather Castle,” referring to a notorious s/m bordello. Surprising everyone, Chutima left L.A. for Las Vegas in 1999 to found Lotus of Siam in a plebian commercial space remote from the strip. Writing in Gourmet, Gold called it “the single best Thai restaurant in North America.”
Now, Chutima and her husband, Suchay, have opened the first offshoot of their award-winning establishment, but the budget-dining profile has evaporated: Our Lotus is situated not in Elmhurst or Sunset Park, but in a luxurious Greenwich Village space once occupied by Cru. Dinner—including wine from a fiendishly expensive list—can easily top $80 per person. Still, I couldn’t wait to find out not only if the food was as good as that of its Vegas precursor, but if the restaurant put our own Sripraphai and Chao Thai to shame. The short answer is: The provender at Lotus NYC can be breathtaking—but don’t stop trekking to Queens just yet.
Having never been to the original, I recruited friends who were regulars at the Vegas location. They noticed several things right off the bat at the New York outpost. First, though our branch is disconcertingly upscale, it’s rather meagerly outfitted, including such things as dry autumn branches as decoration and rattan chairs for seating. Second, our menu is one-third the length of Sin City’s, omitting all sorts of interesting ingredients—catfish, jackfruit, beef liver, and pork jerky—offered in Nevada. While the Vegas menu features 18 types of noodles, mainly priced at $8.95, our menu lists only four, from $14 to $22. The portions tend to be small, too, though they’ve gradually grown larger in response to customer outcry.
Happily, our branch achieves a level of pungency rarely seen in Siamese restaurants on this coast. The curries are thicker than at Queens Thais, and the variety of herbs more extensive. According to an early account in the Times, Southeast Asian botanicals like rau rum, an herb with a soapy flavor, are among the ingredients the chef imports from the West Coast. Fans of the original Lotus will be glad to hear that the food can still be hot as hell (even though your server won’t ask you to request a level of hotness from 1 to 10 for each dish ordered, as they do in Vegas). Nam prik hed ($10) is a little bowl of pounded chilies that will nearly make you scream, though furnished rather prosaically with cabbage and romaine as dipping implements.
The red curry called kang dang burns the tongue, too, with its mixture of dried and fresh red chilies; the coconut milk that underpins the recipe only seems to amplify the pain. As is the case with most Thai restaurants, there’s a choice of main ingredients—chicken, beef, pork, tofu, or prawn—for each of four curries, and in this case chicken ($18) is the most traditional. While the red curry is the hottest, the green is probably the most interesting, made with a mild paste that is said to have originated in Bangkok. Similarly verdant with herbs is Krathiam Prik Thai, from the short Stir Fry section of the menu. Unfortunately, the cilantro sauce has an unpleasantly oily texture.
Fans of the fiery ground pork salad larb may be confused by Lotus, which offers two editions: One, designated Northern Larb, is extensively herby and spicy, but strangely free of citrus. The other, described as Isaan, is served warm and tart, but oddly bland. The green papaya salad proves similarly low on flavor, and lacking in fish sauce. “They seem to have blunted some things, like this salad,” observed a Vegas regular one evening.
We stumbled on at least three killer dishes, though, in three visits. The duck penang curry ($26) was boneless, skin-on slices in a heavenly sauce deglazed with cognac, while the chicken wings—at nine for $8, one of the best values on the menu—were glazed with a sweet sauce that boasted a slight fermented fish flavor. Best of all was Nam Kao Tod, a salad of crisp, toasted rice tossed with sour Isaan sausage and peanuts in a very light, gingery dressing. As I sat in the neighborhood where Henry James, John Reed, and Bob Dylan once wandered, marveling at a dish from a remote corner of Thailand, the thought occurred to me that Lotus of Siam isn’t the strangest thing to happen near Washington Square in the past two centuries. But it comes close.