Many centuries ago, a scholar was preparing for his final exams. To prevent distractions, he isolated himself on an island in the middle of a placid lake. The island was reached by a long bridge, and every day his faithful wife would bring him lunch by hiking across the span. But the lengthy walk meant that the food arrived cold, and the scholar was cross. Then one day his wife had an idea: Bring the soup ingredients along uncooked, and top the broth with a thick layer of oil, which would keep it piping hot during her trek. Then simply add the ingredients to the steaming liquid just before serving. In this way, she invented Yunnan’s most famous dish, crossing-the-bridge noodles—or so goes the ancient folktale.
Yunnan is one of China’s more remote provinces, south of Sichuan, west of Guangxi, and bordering Burma, Laos, and Vietnam. Many of its residents are tribal hill-country people not of Chinese descent, although there is a substantial Chinese population, too. This makes for an eclectic mix of gastronomic influences. In a cuisine known for its extreme spicy and sour flavors, herbs like mint, scallions, and holy basil are also important. And China looks to Yunnan for its wild mushrooms, gathered in late summer and sold mainly in dried form throughout the country. But can the year-old restaurant Lotus Blue successfully evoke the province among Tribeca’s luxury lofts?
The dining room is deep and cocktail-loungey, its dark red walls stenciled with a huge lotus blossom. An elongated lamp hangs in the center of the room like a chrysalis about to disgorge a butterfly, and the best seating is on a raised platform in the rear opposite the bar, where a comfy black banquette curves around the wall. I sat there on a recent evening with a television-producer friend who was born and raised in Yunnan, as our crossing-the-bridge noodles ($18, enough for two as an entrée) appeared, properly unassembled and waiting to be prepared tableside.
In the bottom of a white ceramic vessel lurked a heap of swollen rice noodles topped with cooked chicken, pork, and shrimp, and decorated with edible pansy blossoms. “What is that shrimp doing there?” my friend exclaimed, furrowing her brow. “In Yunnan, we don’t have shrimp, except tiny dried ones.” On a side plate a series of add-ins were arranged, including enoki mushrooms, spice-rubbed tofu, pineapple, carrots, and cukes. My friend frowned again. “Carrots and cucumbers—never! The tofu, at least, belongs there.” A waiter materialized and spilled broth over the noodles, instructing us to introduce the side ingredients one by one. This time it was my turn to complain. “Hey! Where’s the thick layer of oil?”
While Lotus Blue’s crossing-the-bridge noodles proved an epic disappointment (the rice noodles, soft as toothpaste, were wrong, too), other dishes were good, and sometimes even quasi-authentic. Artistically arranged in tubular rolls studded with boiled quail eggs, potted beef shank ($9) had been braised in the province’s celebrated pu-er tea—a mild brew said to aid digestion—to great effect. Pale swatches of stewed sea bass ($25) came in an arrestingly orange bean-paste sauce with pickled greens, a Yunnan passion. The scallion pancakes were flaky and outsize compared with those at the average Chinese restaurant. “My mother loves to make those,” said my friend, “but she stuffs them with meat and fries them in duck fat.” Had the restaurant only been less timid with its menu, spectacular cooking could have resulted.
Sichuan food is popular in neighboring Yunnan, and several dishes at Lotus Blue are barely modified from their fiery prototypes. While these may not be quite as rich and incendiary as those found in Flushing, for this heat-challenged downtown location they suffice quite handily. “Long horn chili chicken” has tossed its poultry morsels with fresh green chiles, toasted dry red ones, and Sichuan peppercorns in an oily sauce flavored with mint. Other dishes seem inspired by the cold composed salads on Thai menus. Best is the banana blossom and mango salad ($9), cradled in a banana leaf and dressed with sweet-and-sour plum sauce.
It’s best to order wine or beer and skip the cocktails, though they seemed to delight a bachelorette party that boisterously occupied a long table in the middle of the dining room one evening. I ordered the one that sounded weirdest: pu-er kung-fu ($12). Made with rum infused with the same black tea that bathed the beef shank, it also features, perplexingly, bacon vodka and “a touch of rosemary.” For reasons I couldn’t fathom, the drink is served steaming hot. I took one nauseating sip, and decided not to offer my Yunnanese friend a taste. She was upset enough already.