Epicurious Eating: Lotus Thai
Let them eat green curry
Published Thursday, 22-Oct-2009 in issue 1139
When I last reviewed Lotus Thai in Hillcrest seven years ago, I came away breathing fire from dangerously hot chilies hidden inside lime-dressed papaya salad. The burn persisted throughout the meal, withstanding even fried bananas with cool coconut ice cream for dessert. The sensation was hauntingly euphoric.
At the risk of chasing away masses of patrons with wimpy tongues, the kitchen has since moderated the heat levels in most dishes, punching them down from a previous default of “5” to an obliging “3” on a scale of one to 10. (Lotus’ sister restaurant in the East Village plays it safer, as to not challenge domesticated conventioneers and cagey yuppies.)
The minty papaya salad is discernibly calmer these days, though still fresh and wonderful. Ditto for the tom yum soup, drunken noodles and panang. Now, if you want to veer off Easy Street, you either speak in higher numbers upon ordering or reach for the vinegar-chili admixture spiked with fish sauce on the condiment tray. That’s the hottest in the lineup.
Another alternative is to encroach on the green curry, typically feistier than its red and yellow cousins. Here it is used most interestingly over zucchini ringlets, an entrée listed on a supplement menu titled “Hillcrest Special.”
The zucchini are cut into thick coins with hallowed-out centers to accommodate little balls of marinated minced pork and shrimp. Strewn over them are sweet red peppers, julienne strips of bamboo and longan fruit, which imparts a sweet and musky pith (similar to lychee) against the aggressive curry.
“We’re back up to a level five with this dish, and without having to ask for it!” I exclaimed to my companion as we enthusiastically dredged rice and other provisions at our table through the creamy green liquid. My only complaint was that it was excessive in volume, camouflaging everything on the plate much like American-style Italian restaurants over-bathe lasagna in tomato sauce to the point where it’s unrecognizable.
Visiting with a vegetarian, we were impressed by the non-salty quality of “mock meat” that we chose in our drunken noodles. Compared to other gluten-based “meats,” this kind of, sort of tasted like pork. The flat rice noodles were customarily punctuated with shallots, garlic, lime and rice vinegar, although I would have preferred a bigger shout of basil.
We took the meatless road also with panang curry, opting for tofu that was generously cubed, porous and silky soft. “The best I ever had,” my friend commented about the dish’s overall construction. Add a dab of hot condiment to scheme, and bingo!
Most menu sections seem to have expanded slightly, making way for items such as pastry-like wonton wrappers filled with mildly spiced ground chicken and potatoes, and fish tikki patties using cod and red curry – both being more exciting appetizers compared to the longstanding Thai corn fritters. Those tasted underserved by the garlic and peppercorns claimed to be in them. The clean, delicately crisp veggie rolls still rule, however.
From the entrée selections, I feel remiss for passing over tropical mango chicken (or shrimp) that I was told is tossed in a creamy version of the fruit sauce. Salmon wrapped in fresh spinach with lemon grass, dry chili, peanuts and appears to be a recent newcomer as well.
Service at Lotus Thai is consistently hospitable, as is the serene vibe of the dining room that tranquilizes the psyche with wood, waterfall panels and mirrors framed in silky fabrics. Tables are linen-draped and arranged in an uncluttered, orderly fashion as though a feng shui expert had a say in things. The downtown location is even snazzier with more mystic, modern elements.
Both restaurants offer budget-friendly happy hours, although starting in November, the Hillcrest location will begin a deal called “Four, Four, Four,” from 5 to 7 p.m., Sunday through Thursday. You need only cough up $4 for various Thai tapas or a large Thai beer or a glass of wine – perfect come-ons for the richer menu items that quietly await.