Catch Up with Our Critics: Sietsema at Lotus Blue; Rao at Cocina Economica


This week, Robert Sietsema introduces his meal of crossing-bridge-noodles at Tribeca’s Lotus Blue through a Yunnan folktale. Further uptown, Tejal Rao reminisces about the highs and lows of restaurant staff meals before exploring the Upper West Side’s new Mexican comfort-food restaurant, Cocina Economica.

Fables and family-meal memories aside, how did our critics rate this week’s homier dishes? Read on to find out.

Robert Sietsema wonders if Lotus Blue’s “cocktail-loungey” Tribeca digs are a bit too posh for the Chinese restaurant’s traditional Yunnan cuisine. However, when greater problems emerge from the kitchen, the dining room’s decor becomes less of a concern. “Hey! Where’s the thick layer of oil?” Sietsema asks his dining companion (a native of the Yunnan province) as a steaming bowl of noodles — sans the classic veil of warm fat — is set before him. The rest of the meal appears to be acceptable at best.

Sietsema writes:

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.

The cocktail menu is equally disappointing:

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.

Meanwhile, Tejal Rao seems more content with the home-style cooking at Cocina Economica Mexico. Pedro Hernandez Perez, a former Land Thai sous chef, has turned his attention to Mexican food and creates plates that the restaurant’s servers recognize from when he cooked for staff before service.

Many of the dishes are “hearty, satisfying, and rough around the edges”:

The antojitos shine, like the hot quesadillas sealed with Oaxacan cheese, dripping neon chorizo-longaniza oil, and the soft, doubled-up tortillas stuffed with braised beef cheeks and pulled pork shoulder ($4). Nopales, the slippery cactus leaves, are a crunchy delight in tacos ($4), and better still in a rowdy little salad ($7) of jicama, radish, and string beans, dressed in a splash of serrano-spiked lime juice. Tiny pork meatballs ($8) in a pan of wilted greens and Oaxacan cheese must be scooped up quickly with hot tortillas, before they start to set.

But not all of the dishes are hits:

This is especially true when it comes to the platillos ($13-16), larger plates of meat and vegetables that can be comforting, but also veer dangerously toward the 30-minutes-or-less efforts of an exhausted parent, eager to get something–anything–on the table.

Still, diners seem cozy, warm, and comfortable at this tiny neighborhood restaurant:

Tables are packed tightly enough for diners to strike up conversations with strangers, as they often do. Others sit at the bar, alone, straight from the office, eating stewed short ribs while glued to their Black­Berrys, swigging beer between bites of black beans, catching up on e-mails. It’s like they’re already home.

The other critics in town were equally busy exploring other homespun flavors this week. At the NY Times, Pete Wells enjoys the trendy flair behind the Filipino bites at the Lower East Side’s Pig and Khao, as much as he does the more authentic Pinoy feeling at marks ever corner of the East Village’s Jeepney. The critic writes that chef Leah Cohen’s food at Pig and Khao seems personal, causing him to feel “as if I were poring over an album of carefully edited postcards from her travels” throughout the Philippines. “Dinner at Jeepney, on the other hand, felt more like parachuting into Manila myself. I didn’t know all the vocabulary and didn’t always know what I was putting in my mouth, but I knew I had left home.” He awards both restaurants two stars.

At Time Out, Jay Cheshes visits chef/owner Saul Bolton’s latest Italian trattoria, Red Gravy in Brooklyn Heights, and finds that the kitchen offers “serious food with prices to match.” The critic’s feelings about the restaurant are a mix of hits (“there are meaty medallions of braised octopus, charred on the grill and paired with bitter singed escarole”) and misses (“But the desserts — more in line with the troublesome service and space – -are a flat-out disaster: Chocolate-chip panna cotta jiggles like Jell-O, pistachio cake is mealy and dense”).

Steve Cuozzo declares that Midtown steakhouse Siro’s “has enough good dishes to make it worth fighting for.” The NY Post critic enjoys the sprawling 10,000-square-foot space as much as he does a “not to miss Chesapeake Bay jumbo lump crab cake.”

Also on the Upper East Side, Daily News critic Stan Sanger checks in at Moti Mahal Delux, an upscale Indian restaurant that’s an offshoot of a Delhi-based chain. Pleased with his spicy meal, Sanger writes, “Moti offers some exquisite examples of the diverse Mughlai cooking of northern India that should reshape our perceptions of the country’s cuisine.”

Over at Bloomberg, Ryan Sutton is the latest critic to explore the city’s newer barbecue offerings, this time at Williamsburg’s Briskettown and the East Village’s Mighty Quinn’s. At Briskettown, Sutton feels that the hefty prices — even for a single beef rib — are warranted. He writes, “Yes, it’s just one rib. And yes, it’s just barbecue (which used to be cheap before beef prices soared and everything went artisanal). Still, the $21 rib is about as good as the $38 version at Il Buco Alimentari.” Mighty Quinn’s food, with its “amped-up beefiness” and “gorgeous marbling” proves to be equally strong.