So how does a cuisine beloved by chefs and assorted ragged outer-borough chowhounds turn into a full-fledged Manhattan restaurant boomlet more or less overnight? That was the question that the grateful, slightly befuddled Thai-food scholars at my table pondered as we sat down to dinner at Lotus of Siam, the second prominent Thai-style restaurant to open in Manhattan in the last two months. We’d gathered, just weeks before, at Harold Dieterle’s accomplished West Village establishment Kin Shop, where the tables were jammed with people feasting on goat-neck curry and squid-ink soup. At this new restaurant, on the corner of 9th Street and Fifth Avenue, the tables were unaccountably jammed as well. The scholars stared in wonder at the menu, which contained fancy Alsatian wines, tongue-twisting classics like tom kha goong and nam prik hed, and even a great, football-size red snapper, fried whole, as in the kitchens of Bangkok, and smothered in drifts of basil and chiles.
This little holiday miracle comes to us courtesy of the noted chef Saipin Chutima and her husband, Bill, whose original Lotus of Siam restaurant, in a strip mall not far from the Las Vegas Strip, is one of the premier Thai destinations in the West. Their new outpost is located in a terminally cursed restaurant space, which last housed the boom-era wine hangout Cru. The Chutimas haven’t done much to improve this feng shui–challenged address, which has an awkward bar area in the front and a sunken, angular dining space in the back. The lighting is low and flat, and the walls are decorated with what appear through the gloom to be crooked dust mops covered in chile peppers (they’re actually tiny maple leaves). The tables are unadorned with linen, the chairs are a simple bamboo, and the wine list, though impressively conceived, looks like it’s been printed on cheap mimeograph paper.
But anyone who’s made a pilgrimage to the city’s great Thai-food temple, Sripraphai, in Woodside, knows there’s often a direct correlation between the lack of pretense in décor and the authentic quality of the cooking. Compared to Dieterle’s breezy “contemporary” Thai menu at Kin Shop, the dense, multipage document at Lotus of Siam reads like the Magna Carta. Chutima learned to cook in the northern city of Chiang Mai, but her kitchen serves curries from every part of Thailand (try the green Bangkok-style kaeng khiao wan, $18), along with a profusion of traditional salads (there are nine on the menu) and soups (order the milky, oyster-rich tom kha hed, $10). There are also nine generally impeccable appetizers to choose from, plus ten entrées, and a whole barrage of faithfully reconstructed stir-fries and noodles, including a version of pad Thai ($14) so ethereally sweet and eggy that I ordered it twice.
That’s what happens when you’ve spent years subsisting on wan, gummy approximations of a certain dish and are confronted, suddenly, with an artful rendition of the real thing. The pad Thai at Lotus of Siam is served in a semi-deconstructed way, with lime, chives, and bits of crushed-peanut garnish, which you toss together at the table like a grand Bolognese ragù. The green-papaya salad (som tum, $9) is a bracing, unusually spicy concoction of fresh papayas, Thai chiles, and tomatoes, and the chicken satay ($9) has a tender, off-the-bone quality and comes with a smooth peanut sauce that’s been made from scratch instead of poured from a bottle. The potentially rubbery tod mun pla fish cakes ($10) have a quenelle-quality lightness to them, the fiery dishes (lip-numbing pork larb, crispy rice tossed with sausage, $9) are righteously hot, and the soups and curries I sampled were layered with that classic, umami-rich balance of Thai flavors (spicy, sour, milky sweet) without being glutinous or thick.
“Let’s order another one of these too,” one of the scholars cried, as a tower of gently frizzled soft-shell crabs was brought to the table, propped over a mound of “drunken” rice noodles laced with a spicy-sweet Thai-basil sauce ($23). The main “Seafood and Meat” section of the menu also includes scallops krathiam prik Thai (seared, with cilantro and a smooth black-pepper sauce, $26), and several renditions of sea bass, the best of which (king sot, $28) is steamed and plated over a fragrant, slightly soupy mix of scallions, napa cabbage, and black wooded mushrooms. I don’t know if I’d pay $36 for a second taste of the rib eye (cut in chaste slices, with a simple dipping sauce), but the short ribs are beautifully braised in star anise and cinnamon, and if you enjoy crispy-fried dishes, both the “crispy” duck Penang (in a curry colored with red chiles and touched with Cognac) and the whole fried snapper ($55 on the night I tried it, and seasoned with pepper and basil) are worth a special trip.
It’s true, as some disgruntled chowhounds have pointed out, that, compared with Thai joints in the outer boroughs, some of the prices at Lotus of Siam are extreme. But like the French chefs who invaded Manhattan in the forties and fifties, the Chutimas are on a mission to bring first-class Thai cuisine onto the city’s main dining stage, where it belongs. The paper it’s printed on may be cheap, but the wine list contains 76 varieties of spice-friendly German Rieslings and a $395 bottle of Bollinger Champagne. The desserts, meanwhile, include tiny poached bananas crowned with coconut sorbet, blocks of traditional sticky rice scented with jasmine, and cool, soothing bowls of tub tim krob soup filled with jackfruit and crunchy bits of water chestnut. These aren’t elaborate dishes by Bangkok standards. But in the depths of a snowy winter, they’re like éclairs were to an earlier generation of New Yorkers: little windows on an exotic, even magical, world.