110 Reade Street, New York NY 10013 (near West Broadway; map); 212-267-3777; lotusbluebar.com
Service: Solicitous and well-meaning, if not particularly fast
Setting: Pleasant enough Tribeca storefront
Compare It To: Yunnan Kitchen
Cost: Quite pricey, given quality and portions; entrees in the $20s
Grade: Not recommended
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Regional Chinese cuisine gets us excited. Regional Chinese cuisine inflected with Southeast Asian ingredients gets us even more excited. Two restaurants serving the fare of the Yunnan province appeared in New York earlier this year—each promising faithful representations of Yunnan cuisine, bright with herbs and fresh produce and clean flavors.
Yunnan Kitchen—one of these two restaurants—we'll get to in a future review. But the first to open, Lotus Blue in Tribeca? We found it an unfortunate disappointment.
We don't like ripping on restaurants; but we also don't like paying $40/head in food alone for a meal we're unhappy with. So let's talk about Lotus Blue in a constructive way.
The restaurant offers a generous happy hour through PM, all cocktails half-price. We genuinely enjoyed a peppercorn blossom ($12; $6 when we tried it), a Negroni of sorts with Sichuan peppercorn-infused gin. Not just a novelty, the Sichuan peppercorns added a camphorous aroma and pleasing tingle, and the drink as a whole was clean and well-balanced. (Sadly, a red sangria made with pu-erh infused vodka evidenced very little of that flavor, and simply tasted like a sweet sangria.)
Also good: the fried dishes we tried. Yunnan crisp fried mushrooms ($9) were the one dish I'd consider going back for, a tangle of slim mushrooms, some of which were only sheathed in a thin tempura-like batter, some of which were nets of not much more than fry. But everything was crisply fried and well-seasoned with salt and specks of red chili, down to the leaves of fried basil. It'd be a welcome snack on any bar menu in town.
While the fried red snapper ($25) came splashed in an uninspired chili sweet and sour sauce, the fish itself was fried well, scored into bite-sized bits and fried to a crisp crust, the firm flesh steaming and moist. A spicy chrysanthemum greens salad ($7) may not have been particularly spicy, with a dressing that didn't speak strongly of any ingredient in the "spicy garlic and Chinese black vinegar dressing" advertised on the menu, but it's hard to complain about a bowl of those slightly peppery greens. And while I might not be willing to pay $16 for stir-fried smoked pressed tofu, the dish was quite flavorful, with a pleasant, mild smokiness that played well against garlic chive blossoms and slices of pineapple that provided a burst of sweetness.
Those were the highlights of the meal, and the extent of the dishes we'd order again.
The Less Good
Ever since traveling to Malaysia last year, I've become somewhat obsessed with banana flowers—the football-shaped, maroon flowers of the banana plant, insipid and astringent when raw but strangely tender and artichoke-like when cooked. Unfortunately, they only appeared in small tendrils in the banana blossom and mango salad ($8), overwhelmed by sweet mango shreds and a far sweeter plum dressing. As in many dishes here, herbs (mint, basil, cilantro) made an appearance but contributed little flavor.
Pu-erh tea flavored beef shank and quail eggs ($9) was another dish that underdelivered on promised flavors; the beef strips were reasonably tender but with no discernible tea flavor; ditto the quail eggs, clearly stained but simply salty in taste. Three delights cross-bridge noodles ($18) had no flavor whatsoever other than a slick of fat floating atop the broth. Rice noodles were limp with no bite, pork and chicken slices were so dry as to be hard to swallow.
Here's the thing: many of these dishes sounded great on the menu, looked gorgeous as they were set down, smelled amazing in the same moment—and hugely underperformed on flavor. Steamed pork belly with imported Yunnan candied plums ($20) was simply sweet without any of the plums' complexity or meat's savory richness. Ground pork and Yunnan pickled turnip fried rice ($12) had few redeeming qualities, the rice itself mushy, the pickled turnips few and far between, the ground pork contributing little in terms of savory flavor. Multigrain rice with shiitake mushrooms and bamboo shoots ($5) looked like a macrobiotic diet plan, and tasted of it, too; if you see red and brown jasmine rice, barley, and millet on a menu, you might not expect anything exciting, but a bit of salt (or mushroom flavor) didn't seem too much to ask.
And Yunnan seared buns ($3 for 2), "slightly sweet pan-seared bread with crispy crust," delivered in that sweetness only—the insides were doughy and greatly undercooked, the outsides tough rather than "crispy," and due to a total lack of salt, it was hard to find any flavor whatsoever in them.
We returned for lunch to try a few dishes again, but found them just the same. One lunch-only item, the pork meatball sandwich ($9), at least had excellent fries (shoestring potato fries, well-salted and strewn with fried herbs)—but the pork, water chestnut, and shiitake mushroom meatballs were overcompacted and had the dull flavor of overcooked pork. An overly sweet sauce and dry, tough bun does them no favors.
We're willing to go along with unfamiliar flavors; and we're more than willing to appreciate food that's not necessarily an orthodox translation of a given cuisine. The problem with Lotus Blue wasn't their interpretation of traditional dishes or involved novel flavors—it was the seeming lack of flavor althogether. A noodle dish with three distinct meats tasted only of grease; "crisp buns," only of underbaked dough; "pork turnip fried rice," no more than greasy, overcooked rice. What's more, this is not cheap food. Were each dish served for $6 in some hole-in-the-wall, it might be a bit more excusable. But $18 for a noodle bowl no one at our table took more than a bite of? Much harder to swallow.
We wish Lotus Blue all the best—particularly in deploying the flavors of a unique Chinese regional cuisine. And we've seen promising reviews elsewhere, suggesting that this might once have been a better restaurant. But based on our recent visits, this is not a restaurant we'd recommend.