24 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY
212.529.1700 (reservation made thru OpenTable)
Wednesday, February 9th, 2011
It is a frigid night in the height of winter. While one LeClair has just returned from a business trip, the other has just made a big decision career-wise. And this Ninth at Nine is not a table for two, but rather three….enter our good friend Bobby, a fellow Thai food lover. Although each of us is preoccupied with work (as can easily happen midweek) priorities quickly melt into the soft glow of Lotus of Siam.
New to town since October, the Thai restaurant—a few blocks from Washington Square Park at the base of a residential building—has created much buzz. New Yorkers might recognize this space from one of its many previous establishments, most recently Cru, a high-end restaurant boasting more than 150,000 wines. Is this one of those strange microcosms in Manhattan that cannot keep its tenants: cursed, bad gravitational pull, poor execution? No matter; chef/owner Saipin Chutima and husband Suchay (Bill) have already proven themselves through their successful Las Vegas restaurant of the same name.
What makes these two think they can break the curse? Well, for starters, Saipin began cooking at the ripe age of five under the guidance of her grandmother and a few years later, her husband’s grandmother. Saipin took this training from the Isan region of Thailand and followed her husband to the outskirts of LA and eventually to a Las Vegas strip-mall establishment, which has since received the accolade of being considered the “single best Thai restaurant in North America,” according to Gourmet magazine. That sounds like just the sort of cooking that can rewrite the forsaken destiny of this space and reclaim Manhattan as the top borough for Thai. (We have yet to make the trek, but many foodies agree that the city’s best Thai restaurant can be found in Queens at Sripraphai. We smell another Ninth at Nine brewing.)
We hop out of our cab at Fifth Avenue and 9th Street: 8:59pm, not bad. The simplistic black and white facade awaits across the street, as does Bobby at the bar still wrapped in his new scarf and sipping a glass of wine. We enter on the heels of another couple who receive direction that without a reservation there will be a slight wait. It sure is refreshing to know that in NYC you can go out to dinner late on a Wednesday night and still need a reservation. The hostess is pleased that we do, and asks for our coats and seats us promptly at a four-top.
The overall space is a bit awkward. A few steps separate the bar from the lower dining room which has a unique oblong shape. The staff glance this way and that as if they are looking for something or possibly each other. The lighting however, is superb, which helps accentuate or offset the minimalist décor of red abstract maple-leaf wall hangings, while off-beat classic rock hums through the speakers. Groups of well-dressed people fill the other tables, and one group in particular looks as though they could be celebrating a successful showing of designer eyewear at Fashion Week.
After a good 15 minutes, our drink order is finally taken: a bottle of an Austrian Reisling which Bobby points out actually has a bit of rubber-eraser bouquet to it. Drinks in hand and a few pointers from Adam Platt (New York magazine’s restaurant critic) in our pocket, we are ready to get this meal underway. We order the Crispy Rice with Thai Sausage, Green Papaya Salad and, after the persuasiveness of our server–similar to a flower peddler on Valentine’s Day–we add the Koong Sarong in place of a prawn dish.
Two out of three appetizers exemplify the ethereal experience we are after. The Green Papaya explodes with a sudden spiciness that gives way to a light finish (no hot-wing burning lips here), while the Crispy Rice makes us rethink the possibilities of rice…yes rice. Disappointingly, the Koong Sarong is nothing more than fried shrimp, and although tasty, provides no real comparison to good pub food. That was our first and last recommendation from the server.
For entrees, we order soft shell crab atop drunken noodles, Duck Penang and pad Thai (aforementioned Adam Platt claimed he ordered an extra serving). Our table is suddenly too small and we jockey glasses, candle and silverware alike to find space. To watch our quick video of these dishes, click here!
The soft-shell crab makes us laugh about Sebastian from Little Mermaid, but at the same time fills us with a sense of appreciation for gifts from under the sea. The pad Thai, perfectly deconstructed, also pleases with its familiar but perfected straightforwardness, and the meatiest bites of duck bring smiles all around.
The desserts topped off the evening: coconut ice cream with banana jasmine, and a water chestnut/jackfruit dish that remains a hazy memory, due in part from our last carafe of Riesling. But looking around, the restaurant is now nearly empty of patrons and staff. After much waiting, our server reappears, hands us the check and without haste is back asking for the signed receipt as if to say we have been keeping him. Harumph.
Ah, but minutes later the sweet hostess hands us our coats with a smile. As we walk out we think the food, at times, did transport us to another level, but the high tab for Thai is still hard to swallow compared to the many cozy nights we order takeout from around the corner. Perhaps a great lunch of sea bass and red snapper is in our future, but dinner again? That is, of course, if Lotus of Siam stands the test of time.
EXPERIENCE = 6/9