We were lapping up the last of our second fruity cocktails when they showed up. "We're sorry we're late. But there's no sign outside saying Lotus. How are you supposed to find a place you've never been to, if there's no name saying what the hell it is?"
Ahh, don't Manhattan's new recruits ask the most adorable questions?
The answer is not much different from the one Mimi Sheraton gave me fifteen years ago when, preparing for my first trip to San Francisco to write about its food, I asked her if she would be kind enough to recommend some places I might like. "No," she replied. "What do you mean, no?" I asked, stunned at the refusal of so respectful a request. "No," she repeated. "Find them yourself. Or don't you think that's part of it?"
It may be condescending -- perhaps just short of repellent -- to tell those newly arrived innocents that becoming an enviable urbanite means assembling a Palm Pilot full of friends, insiders, Websites, and Sergio Rossi-shod yentas who fervently nurture your knowingness. Yet how else does one explain how places like Pastis, Village, Orsay, Tja!, and Lotus become busy prior to any reviews, advertising, or opening party hosted by fill-in-the-platinum-neckchain-wearing blank?
The advantages of acquiring this sakatini-triggered sixth sense are obvious. Those who do rarely wander or wait. Those who don't often find themselves at the mercy of the black-clad and near-useless, who, perhaps because of their size, genetics, or prior seductions, have gained positions in which they wield clipboards and reservation books as instruments of abuse in instantly successful places run by those who have seemingly forgotten how much luck is at the heart of success.
From the outside, Lotus is a prime candidate for this category. There's the aforementioned non-mentioned moniker, the half-lit doorfront marked by incense, a velvet rope, and a bouncer who served as a temple dog in a prior life. But enter, and the Forbidden City factor fades faster than you can count blondes in black tank dresses.
In fact, the room in front of you doesn't even appear to be in the right neighborhood. Nancy Mah's design shuns both the industrial edge and the European yearnings of its downtown neighbors. Instead, the waffled blonde-wood walls, cylindrical lights, and curved mahogany tables are offset by the suspended resin staircase, and the angled walls and high-gloss ceiling done in colors favored by postwar suburbanites for their "rec rooms." It's like the most spectacular bowling-alley cocktail lounge ever built. If only they had put in a half dozen lanes downstairs instead of a dance floor. Furthering this approachably luxe illusion is an atmosphere of almost apologetic coolness. Owners David Rabin, Will Regan, Jeffrey Jah, and Mark Baker act as if they didn't mean for Lotus to have turned out so sought-after, that what they really wanted was a popular neighborhood place like the ones they used to hang out in on the Upper West Side. Consequently, Lotus's staff and older-than-entry-level clientele radiate a conviviality more in keeping with Calle Ocho, up on Columbus, than with a geographical neighbor like Fressen. And there is a deliberate effort -- well, until midnight, anyway -- to keep bar traffic from overwhelming the dining room.
Such efforts are even more welcome once it's discovered that chef Richard Farnabe has no intention of letting his cooking get lost in the crowd. Formerly of Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Mercer Kitchen (where his food had the added responsibility of making up for a front desk as eager to greet you as you are to take an MRI), Farnabe is cheekily adept at devising a quartet of seared, fried, terrined, and souffléd foie gras that can steal thunder from the front room's D.J. or a sea-bass carpaccio with a spiky coriander dressing that actually got two P.R. princesses to put down their cell phones while chewing. Farnabe arranges the kind of truffle-dressed mesclun salad you want to eat with your fingers. The frequently overlooked nutlike quality of scallops is cleverly caught between sweetly tart beets and tartly sweet clementine sauce. Crayfish is not only easy to savor in cassolette form, it acquires an unexpected, come-back-to-me aftertaste due to an infusion of beef marrow. Herb ravioli becomes lilting in an airy mascarpone cream sauce. And the basil-laced goat cheese is entrancing basking in a gloriously vermilion tomato confit. Only a pasty robiola-cheese soufflé sits there, made even more impenetrable by dense white-truffle oil.
John Dory is the Eurotrash of fish: It boasts an old name but has little to show for it. Surround paupiettes of this tender but bland whitefish with daubs of foie gras and topazlike chunks of chanterelles, however, then splash it about in a brisk, spicy sherry reduction, and you could be convinced the line might be worth saving for future generations. With equal effort expended on a lobster bouillabaisse, Farnabe proves why he rapidly gained Vongerichten's trust. Sweetly fragrant, bathed in a velvety thick bath of garlic and tomato, it is a sensuously superb version. And his squab is tastefully carved and laid beside a risotto cake quilted in honey and lavender. Codfish is the odd misstep. Neither its pistachio crust, clam broth, or marmalade of green tomato give it the necessary support to stand on its own. Black truffle sauce, though, wraps lusciously round a beef tenderloin, and any reservation I had about free-range chicken baked in a pale lemongrass-and-ginger sauce was trounced by dissenting partners with thrashing forks, causing me to retreat quite contentedly to a loin of lamb, roasted in turmeric on a bed of fennel.
Lotus also has one of the only late-night menus also in force on Mondays that doesn't make you suspect the dishwasher is doing double duty after midnight, boasting black-Angus steak au poivre, briskly pepper-spiced tuna, and heartily seasoned roast chicken that makes you sorry these birds don't have more skin.
There are two excellent desserts: a chocolate pyramid filled with hazelnut mousse and a delightful pair of fried cannelloni shells stuffed with crème brûlée ice cream. And there are three nasty ones. But when was the last time you went to a temple of trendiness and the most ill-tempered thing there was a pineapple-mango salad?
When my friends left, it was obvious they'd been seduced to their last chakra. "I'm going to come here again," one of them exclaimed. "All I have to do is find it." Hey, they've only been here a year -- it takes time.
Lotus, 409 West 14th Street (212-243-4420). Dinner, Monday through Thursday 6-11 p.m., Friday and Saturday till 11:30 p.m. Late-night menu 12 a.m.-2 a.m. Prix fixe, $46.00. All major credit cards.
Remember how they used to warn you on your SAT test that you were probably better off sticking with your first impression? Some advice is still worth heeding.
The first time I walked into Tja!, I stood there stunned at the extraordinary collaboration of ugliness and thrift. Furring strips (the kind of cheap wood used to anchor shingles) half covered clunky mud-brown columns. Two spotlights attempted to be thirty, their beams split by smudgy mirrors obviously pinched from the estate of Blanche du Bois. And a cheesy white curtain separated the dining room from the bar with all the jerry-built finesse of the blanket hung between Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night.
The staff wasn't much more refined. The hostess eagerly kissed me and welcomed me back -- then asked me my name. One waitress proudly told me the menu was "Scandinasian." I asked if it was similar to "Asianavian." She said she'd have to ask the chef.
I said I'd be back; I never should have kept my word. A menu as schizoid as Anthony Perkins in Mahogany. An execution that proves more than miles separate fjords from the Pacific Rim. Such warm martinis. And a management willingly supplying ashtrays in the dining room because, as the owner says, "I try to accommodate my customers." Well, some of them anyway. Then again, it's not like there's a luscious aroma in danger of being killed. But wouldn't it be novel to try accommodating the law? Besides, isn't that why you put that tacky sheet up?
I don't remember seeing the name of the restaurant on their front door, either. My friends would probably have a hard time finding Tja!, too. Sometimes, being out of the know has its perks.
Tja!, 301 Church Street (212-226-8900). Dinner, Monday through Saturday 6 p.m.-2 a.m. Appetizers, $9 to $14; entrées, $15 to $25. A.E., M.C., V.