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Posts from the ‘southeast asian’ Category

Lotus of Siam: Manhattan’s Best Gourmet Thai?

As my boyfriend astutely noted, Thai food can unfortunately often taste cheap and oily. The truly superlative cuisine at Lotus of Siam, a Las Vegas transplant that recently opened in the vacated Cru space, is a refreshing change of pace from the mediocre Thai spots that pepper Manhattan. In fact, Lotus of Siam is pretty revelatory, 100% worthy of the praise I’m about to shower on it profusely.

The restaurant is mellow, set in the spacious former Cru space. Everything about it is muted: a neutral color scheme, chic yet minimalist pan-Asian decor, warm wooden furniture. The most striking thing about Lotus of Siam, other than the remarkable food, is the ultra-modern kitchen, hidden behind frosted glass sliding doors, that open elusively, offering peeks into the magic being made, as cooks shuffle around behind them. Early in the night, Lotus of Siam is almost eerily quiet, serene, detached from the bustle of New York University outside. As peak dining time rolls around, the noise intensifies, though never above a hum. The clientele seems to consist of curious foodies, tasting everything raved about by early reviewers, and families and couples from the neighborhood, embracing the newcomer warmly. It runs like a well-oiled machine, with seamless table service, friendly staff, and well-timed meal delivery; it’s hard to leave without remarking on what a wonderful dining experience it all was.

Perhaps though the best thing about Lotus of Siam is the completely authentic and outrageously delicious Thai cuisine. The menu is extensive, offering pages upon pages of regional specialties and well-known favorites. There is something for everyone between the salads, soups, curries, noodles, fried rice, stir fries, and the plethora of various appetizer and entree options; with such a cornucopia, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. To start, try the Northern Larb salad, a very spicy and succulent ‘salad’ of minced seasoned pork with a wedge of crisp and soothing Iceberg lettuce, or the Crispy Rice, a crunchy delight with Thai sausage, fresh chilis, peanuts, zesty lime, and ginger. Both dishes are hot and spicy, with a range of vibrant and classic Southeast Asian flavors. Interested in a something a little bit more basic? The crispy fried marinated shrimp is a guilty pleasure, served wrapped in bacon and deep fried in a crunchy spring roll wrapping; though I’m pretty sure this is in no way a traditional Thai dish, it’s just damn good.

It’s essential to get a Thai curry, and the red is my favorite – creamy and spicy, devoid of that cloying oily taste that haunts curries poorly made, and stuffed with texturally-fun shards of bamboo shoots. Green, yellow and massaman options are also offered, depending on your personal predilections. The Rad Na, with prawn, is also wonderful – flat rice noodles bursting with nutty flavor, served thick and luscious with yellow bean paste and fried garlic – a great option for noodle lovers. Perhaps the one dish not worthy of a gold star though is the Pineapple Curry Fried Rice with Yellow Curry; ultimately a limp rendition of fried rice, it just wasn’t flavorful enough to be interesting; the large chunks of pineapple were too sweet without any contrasting flavor note. When it’s all said and done though, the food at Lotus of Siam is just fantastic. You can taste the authenticity in its preparation, the care taken in its presentation.

It’s inevitable to compare Kin Shop and Lotus of Siam. Both are new press-hounded gourmet Thai restaurants opened a few short blocks from each other in the West Village. In trying them both within a week of each other, my vote is firmly with Lotus of Siam. Not only was the entire dining experience more relaxed and less chaotic at Lotus, but the food was also vastly superior than Kin Shop’s. Try them both if you’re curious, but the best option for authentic, fresh and high-quality Thai food in downtown Manhattan is, in my opinion, indisputably by the experienced Thai food restauranteurs behind Lotus of Siam. Bravo, to them, for bringing such wonder from a Las Vegas strip mall to the posh ‘Golden Mile’ on 5th Avenue South.

Perfect For: family dinners, Greenwich Village locals, Thai scholars and students

Lotus of Siam NY on Urbanspoon

Kin Shop: An American Chef Does Thai

Kin Shop opened quietly last fall, the second restaurant of Top Chef winner Harold Dieterle. It sits hardly noticed on 6th avenue, between and around delis and nail salons, specialty stores and pet grooming shops. Not until New York Times’ restaurant critic Sam Sifton’s glowing review did Kin Shop blow up into a foodie hotspot, visited by trendy young folk and big celebrity names, alike. On a frigid Friday night, wait times for tables at the bar were about 90 minutes and a wait list wasn’t even started for dining room tables.

The restaurant is small, announced only by a discrete blue awning amongst many blue awnings. Inside, the dining room features zen-like decor, cool colors and modern art. At the back is a small bar, mostly used for dining room overflow, and an open kitchen accompanied by a dining bar, prime spots for foodies interested in watching the kitchen work. Everything about Kin Shop is relaxed – unfussy design, casual crowd, family-style dining, well-priced bottles of wine.

Kin, in Thai, means “to eat” and that’s exactly what the diverse crowd has come to do at Kin Shop. The menu is contemporary Thai, modern riffs on traditional dishes. Though there are a few specials nightly, expect to see on a regular basis a succulent braised goat massaman curry, flat and wide wonton noodles with chicken, a jungle curry with bamboo shoots, soups, salads, and the house specialty grilled prawns. The garam masala and tomato soup is the perfect way to kick off a meal on a chilly night: smooth and creamy, intensely aromatic, and packing just enough to spice to warm you from the inside out. An equally delicious alternative is the steamed pork meatball soup, vaguely reminiscent of matzoh ball soup, done Thai. The small pork meatballs are succulent and juicy, salty in the toothsome and well-seasoned broth. The house grilled shrimp are served for $4/shrimp, heads-on, simply grilled; the taste is briny and fishy – not for those squeamish around overtly ‘seafood-y’ seafood.

The curries are the way to go – the braised goat massaman is sublime. Impossibly rich and silky, the curry tastes authentic and fresh; the meat is tender, falling off the bone with little resistance, and not too much oil is sitting around, pooling at the top as is too often seen in the curries of take-out containers. Not a curry person? Try the stir-fried wide wonton noodles, served with chicken sausage, broccoli rabe, and oyster sauce. Though just a touch too sticky, the dish is hearty and satisfying, packed with interesting flavors, and made fun by the knobby texture of delicious chicken sausage nuggets. For riskier eaters, the kitchen offers blazing spice with the Spicy Duck Laab Salad or offal with the roasted bone marrow and duck tongue specialties. Don’t hold your breath for a good dessert – with only one option on the menu besides ice creams and sorbets, it’s slim pickins and best to fill up with the savory starters and main courses.

Kin Shop is a great place to eat – warm and casual with interesting food and interesting people. Is it awe-inspiring? Worthy of top 10 lists? Deserving of the maddening hype? Probably not. There are better restaurants in New York. Kin Shop’s novelty is that it’s both Thai and gourmet, a surprising rarity in a city with so many ethnic eateries. If you succeed in getting a reservation, good for you and you’ll most likely very much enjoy your meal. If you don’t, try not worry, you haven’t missed the greatest new spot of 2010.

Perfect For: trendy eaters, hot spot trackers, B-list celebrity spotting, the adventurous type, Top Chef fanatics, haute hippies

Kin Shop on Urbanspoon

Fatty Crab: Gettin’ Down and Dirty with Chilis

Fatty Crab has a lot of hype, especially with the wild and maddening success of her sister restaurant in Brooklyn Fatty ‘Cue. At dinner time, mostly towards the end of the week, it’s mobbed with hipsters, yuppies, and those rock n’roll older folk still firmly stuck in the ’70s. Good luck getting a table without a wait, for the teensy-eensy dining room takes no reservations and the service runs less than smoothly.

Fatty Crab sits on the border of the Meatpacking District and the West Village, almost in the shadow of the towering Gansevoort Hotel. On the same block as a few expensive clothing stores and the shiny new Corsino, the self-described “funky” Southeast Asian restaurant sticks out like a sore thumb with a flaming red awning, emblazoned with bright yellow Chinese characters and the depiction of a Dungeness crab. Inside, the small dining room is painted brick red and adorned with little besides small blinking christmas lights, mismatched chairs, and the requisite exposed brick wall. A tiny bar sits over by what looks like an open short-order kitchen, and a chalkboard nearby boasts a two-hour late-night happy hour between midnight and 2am. The atmosphere is dark and crowded, boisterous and a little bit sweaty. The crowd doesn’t seem to mind getting close and grimy, digging into their food with their hands while chatting vibrantly over beers and bloody marys.

While the decor isn’t necessarily something to write home about, the food is just fantastic. It’s uniformly packed with flavor and hot spice; it’s warm and soul-satisfying, unusual and unique. Start with the fatty sliders, surprisingly spicy bits of minced spiced pork and beef in soft and slightly-charred potato bun; they’re texturally perfect and pack a dynamite flavor punch. The charred squid salad is a little less impressive, falling flat after the thrilling sliders duo. For entrees, the house special, the chili crab, is a requirement, despite the often lofty market prices. Yet, despite the $43 price tag, the massive bowl of addictive tomato chili sauce in which sit two very large Dungeness crabs, rubbed in a thick and pungent chili rub, is an experience you’d be really unfortunate to miss. With just a shellfish cracking tool and what amounts to a small wooden toothpick, you tear apart the crabs, hunting and digging for the golden nuggets of sweet crab meat hidden beneath thin shells and between claw joints. Difficult and time-consuming, the process is frustrating yet worth the immense sense of accomplishment after finding every piece of meat you possibly can. If you’re not in the mood for such a high-intensity endeavor, another excellent option is the chicken claypot, an incredibly delicious stew-broth hybrid with green chili, succulent pieces of chicken, soft and mellow tofu, and the cool refreshing bite of ginger.

Fatty Crab’s food is really something special and good thing for it – the service is pretty much a disaster, despite being impossibly friendly for Manhattan. The restaurant is so clearly understaffed, and the kitchen delivered food at exceedingly strange times (the squid salad being served last? after the gigantic bowl of chili crab?). Our server seemed overwhelmed, confused, and stressed throughout our entire meal, which included long periods of being unable to get our server’s attention through any means shorting of waving our hands frenetically. As I said, luckily, the food is addictively delicious, so delicious that I can’t help recommend Fatty Crab to anyone who even vaguely likes Southeast Asian food.

Perfect For: late night noshing, funky boozy brunch, casual al fresco dining, happy hour, getting down and dirty with crabs, hobnobbing with hipsters, “i’ll have some food with my beer”

Fatty Crab on Urbanspoon

Betel: Why I Hate Trendy Asian Fusion

Despite wonderful company (hi Katy), nothing could have possibly saved my dreadful experience at West Village newcomer Betel. When the sleek Grove Street Asian fusion spot first opened, I couldn’t wait to try it. I love Thai food; I love good cocktails; I love not having to trek miles for good food – Betel seemed like a potential new neighborhood favorite, a nice alternative to Yerba Buena Perry. However, Betel was ultimately a total disappointment with very few redeeming features.

The Southeast Asian fusion concept restaurant is settled in a rectangular space on Grove Street, just off 7th Avenue. It’s sleek and glossy with a whole lot of awkward seating situations. All seats seem unnecessarily cramped. The bar is long and broad, taking up just too much space in the otherwise modestly-sized restaurant. Through the middle of the room runs a long communal bar height table, which diners are unceremoniously seated at without any warning – if you’re short, a quiet talker, or perhaps just fond of seats with backs, your 50% shot of ending up at the communal bar renders Betel decidedly uncomfortable. My particular neighbors seemed outraged by the fact that my rice was steaming in their face. Yes, these are the type of people that frequent Betel (pronounced, fittingly, Beetle). The rest of the seating is marginally better, at too-close-for-comfort yet (praise the lord) separate tables of lacquered faux wood. The wonderful golden lighting mercifully disguises the room’s unfortunate seating flaws, casting everything in a warm and pleasant glow.

What I think is perhaps most amusing, or rather frustrating, about Betel is its claim of inspiration from Thai ‘hawker stalls.’ This is ridiculous not only because the food is so painfully over-priced that you have to sell your soul to afford a bowl of curry but also because whatever the kitchen delivers is so remote from Thai street food that the comparison seems unbelievably fanciful. The menu is bizarre, to say the least, with frighteningly priced ‘small plates’ ranging from salt & pepper cuttlefish for $15 to pork & scallop dumplings for $15 (dumplings? $15? really?). Entrees only go onwards and upwards with a bland and meatless massaman curry with eggplant and plantain for $22, a tasty stir-fry chicken dish for $24 (otherwise nabbed for $10 in Chinatown), a caramelized braised beef rib for a staggering $38, and a Southern chicken curry for $28. Prices such as these would perhaps be considered reasonable at an oh so haute restaurant with blow-your-mind cuisine, yet incontrovertibly, Betel is NOT that place. Considering the waitress recommends 2 small plates and 2 entrees for 2 people, you’re looking at a fantastically pricey and comparatively unsatisfying meal.

On top of its impossible prices, uncomfortable seating, and bland food, Betel also happens to have a number of irritating quirks, like it’s obtuse website where if you click ANYWHERE, it automatically opens an email to the management or the server’s inability to just take your drink order without pushing one of the $14 too-sweet-for-normal-people house cocktails. I ask myself, how can this place even think of building regulars? Anyone who eats here will either realize their money can be better spent elsewhere or go bankrupt.

Betel is inaccessible, unimpressive, and the type of place where trendy people go to pick at their food. Music bump bumps in the background, and stiletto-clad barbies fall all over their suited boyfriends at the bar. The weirdest part about all of this is that, yes, you are actually in a restaurant; in case you’re looking, the clubs are about 3 avenues over, 10 blocks up.

Perfect For: not much of anything. if you’re looking for a hotspot club thing, why don’t you head to Meatpacking – those type of places fight for business over there.

Betel on Urbanspoon

Cafe Asean: Generic Asian With Character

There are a lot of cheap generic Asian (excuse me, pan-Asian) spots in Manhattan, and most of them either have no character, crappy food, or both. Yet, luckily enough for me, just around the corner from my Perry Street abode is an Asian restaurant that not only charms patrons with it’s quaint decor but also serves flavorful and well-executed Vietnamese, Thai, and Malaysian cuisine.

The unexpectedly spacious spot on W. 10th Street seats no more than 30 guests in the front room, which evokes old American farmhouse rather than authentic Southeast Asian eatery. Tables are fashioned from recycled metal and wood and painted bright candy colors. The exposed brick walls shelve potted plants, various items of cookware, and the occasional burned-down candle. Colorful paper lanterns dangle from the ceilings, lending a soft and funky flair to the already casual environment. Through to the back though is an airy windowed interior ‘garden patio,’ complete with lush greenery and lots of natural light. The vibe is relaxed and intimate; conversations are carried out quietly amongst dining couples, friends looking to catch up, and those just stopping through for a quick n’easy meal.

The food is Cafe Asean’s greatest asset. Fresh, flavorful, and satisfying, it’s a welcome retreat from the over-cooked and soupy crap that’s usually delivered to your door by various vaguely Asian vendors. The kitchen takes liberties with the type of food it serves, especially on the specials menu. The decidedly non-Asian shrimp-stuffed zucchini blossoms were delectable and refreshing, an unusual yet surprisingly tasty starter for those lucky enough to catch it as a special. The “sotong” is another remarkable starter, turning basic calamari into an explosion of flavor with just salt, pepper, and a spicy mango salsa. A curry fan, the “kari kapitan” is a personal favorite. While simply a chicken curry dish, Cafe Asean’s version goes above and beyond with succulent and juicy chicken tidbits and an uncharacteristically thick coconut curry sauce with diced potatoes. A house favorite is the “hu tien,” broad rice noodles sauteed in either beef or chicken (beef is the best.) and bok choy; it’s simple, hearty, boldly seasoned, and authentically prepared.

Cafe Asean is a breath of fresh air in a neighborhood dominated by either expensive and chi-chi haute restaurants or ultra-cheap delivery hovels. A neighborhood spot with oodles of charm, it’s quaint and friendly in a way most Manhattan eateries aren’t. Despite spot-on good food, you’ll never have to wait for a table and if things get unexpectedly busy, they do some of the best take-out you’ll have downtown.

Perfect For: quick bites and takeout, satisfying that curry yen, dinner with your best friend, a relaxed and unfussy dinner out, indulging in a little escapism

Cafe Asean on Urbanspoon

Bennie’s Thai: Dank Restaurant, Delicious Curry

Cheap and dirty, that’s Bennie’s Thai Cafe. Well, not dirty in the sense of receiving a failing letter grade from the Department of Health, but more dirty in a figurative sense. Bennie’s, a favorite of the FiDi working set and Pace students alike, lurks in the basement of a hulking building just off Fulton St. It’s below street-level setting makes for a particularly natural-light deprived dining experience, but no matter – you don’t come here for the decor (which, by the way, consists of chintzy wall hangings, basic diner-style tables, and bottles of Sriracha).

It’s the inexpensive, tasty, no-fuss Thai food that draws crowds. A long laundry list of authentic and traditional Thai dishes offer something for everyone, whether adventurous or new to Thai cuisine. Super-sized portions of slippery and spicy Pad Thai, spicy noodles, and Pad See Eiw, buckets of chicken curry, and hefty puffs of sweet sticky rice with mango lure suits and students for dirt cheap prices. The flavors are big, bold and messy, lacking entirely in the trendy mincings of the ‘upscale’ Thai spots that dot Manhatan. My favorite? The $5.95 chicken curry lunch special that comes in a tub the side of my forearm and lasts for days. Other recommended dishes include the Pad Voonsen, Pad Khing with kicks of fresh ginger, and the Panang Curry with sweet silky coconut milk.

Bennie’s Thai is your simple neighborhood Thai spot that gets you in and out fast for less than $10 (if you play your cards right) and doesn’t leave you swimming in grease or wishing you had stuck with a PB&J. The food is far above average for an in-and-out spot, available for rapid delivery through Seamlessweb, and a popular crowd-pleaser for those in the know. Seeking something zesty in the hard-to-navigate Financial District? Bennie’s is your place, if you can find it.

Bennie Thai Cafe on Urbanspoon

Kittichai: Wait, that was Thai cuisine?

When I went to Kittichai years ago with my father, I remember it being delicious, trendy, a hot spot at which I felt swank. However, my dinner last night proves that some restaurants don’t age gracefully.

My second dining experience at the modern Thai restaurant in the Thompson Hotel in Soho was, in one word, miserable. The only salvageable part of the meal was my beautiful and interesting dining companion Laura who managed to thoroughly distract me throughout the ordeal.

Let me walk you through the experience and hopefully I can shed some light on why this particular meal was such a travesty.

To begin with, another bimbo vacant hostess (please read my review of THOR to fully understand my problem’s with some of New York’s hostesses). She was both bitchy and slow along with so skinny I wondered how she walked on those sticks. Needless to say, she got us to our table, 15 minutes late, and left a pretty bad taste in my mouth from the get-go.

Now, the breakdown:

The Scene: tired and done before. It looks like every other over-priced asian fusion ‘hot spot’ that burst on the scene 5 years ago – dark and sexy with waterfalls and flowers. Maybe this was awe-inspiring a couple years back – now, it just seems very old. The crowd was, at its best, trendy young things not old enough to order an alcoholic beverage, and at its worst, trashy trendy wannabes that bordered on a bit tragic.

The Service: Here was my real bugaboo with Kittichai. There was something distinctly off-putting about the service. It was friendly, yet stilted, disorganized, both too fast and too slow, and down-right creepy at times. I counted 5 different people helping us, so I never knew who to ask for something, and when I finally identified our ‘head waiter,’ it did us no good because he would disappear for 15 minutes at a time. Additionally, my friend and I were having a spirited catch-up session that kept being punctuated by our overzealous waiter checking in on us. At one point, about 4-5 minutes after our entrees arrived, I was in the middle of a long (too long) story and was interrupted by our waiter asking if my dish was OK because I had only taken two bites. This wouldn’t have been horribly offensive if he hadn’t snuck up on me and startled me to the extent of actually having me jump out of my chair. Lastly, once we were finished with our course, we would wait for what seemed like ages for our waiter to clear the dishes and at the end of the meal, it took an exceedingly long time to close out. FRUSTRATING.

The Food: I was hopeful that the food would salvage the experience. Not only do I adore Thai food in general but I had an excellent meal here years back. Well, this was NOT Thai. The menu has morphed into something I can’t even put my finger on. There is tapas, fish, hanger steak, chicken breast, salads and soups…not a single curry or noodle dish in sight. Very disappointing!

I ordered the coconut soup and the hangar steak, while my companion opted for the $35 prix-fixe, which included salmon tartare, branzino, and jasmine flan. My coconut soup gets points for presentation as it showed up over a portable flame that kept it piping hot for quite awhile. It was also very savory – the highlight of my meal. The hanger steak was just…strange. It was coated in a chili rub that was both extremely spicy and unusual tasting (in a bad way). I only ate half my steak and left the rest to be wrapped up. My dining buddy thoroughly enjoyed her salmon tartare that came with interestingly shaped tortilla cups in which you could put the tartare. Yet, her branzino was a flop; she described it as “unpleasant” with a “nasty smell.” Yikes!

At this point in the meal, I was ready to go. It was incredibly warm in my seat and the caliber of the cuisine put me in a sour mood. It took us 20-25 minutes after dessert was cleared to find our waiter, ask for the check, receive the check, and pay our bill. Talk about an exhausting end to an evening.

All in all, Kittichai has lost its spark and charm. It is no longer a fresh take on Thai and it is in fact, no longer Thai! I cry false advertising!

This restaurant is going to get an AVOID.

Kittichai on Urbanspoon