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Restaurants come and go. And when one closes, the space in which it operated usually becomes available again, and inevitably another restaurateur will step in to claim it, betting on his or her ability to create a more successful business model than the previous owner.
Local sushi chef Buu “Billy” Ngo recently pounced on the space last occupied by G.V. Hurley’s, squeezed into a restaurant-heavy block of J Street. (Its neighbors are Centro Cocina Mexicana, Papi’s Pizza, Aura Restaurant and Bar, and Harlow’s.) It’s a hip, picturesque and highly trafficked section of midtown. Ngo, who owns and operates the successful Kru mere blocks away, has expanded his culinary repertoire to showcase a creative take on Chinese dim sum and a selection of interesting Asian nibbles. Always a fan of the chef’s bold, innovative sushi at Kru, I couldn’t wait to sample the fare at Red Lotus Kitchen & Bar.
Ngo’s menu is compact and divided into dim sum, soups and salads, noodle and rice dishes, and vegetable sides. The young chef has crafted a seemingly affordable menu: Most lunch dishes range from $6.50 to $9, and dinner items top out at $15, with the majority in the $7 to $11 range. But before you get too excited, I soon discovered that many of the dishes are small and meant to be shared, family-style, so the bill can add up, lickety-split.
On each of my three visits, I found myself growing impatient as I waited for the food to be delivered. One evening I arrived at 6 p.m. (to a virtually empty restaurant) and waited for 25 minutes until my two bowls of soup arrived. The lemon grass soup, embellished with blocks of tofu, had a murky, unidentifiable flavor (nope, it wasn’t lemon grass), though I enjoyed the texture contributed by its silky seaweed and earthy shimeji mushrooms. The egg flower soup was lovely to look at but so salty I quickly gave up on it. The chicken pot stickers accompanying the soups, however, were plump and pleasing.
On other visits, I sampled a number of dishes, including Ngo’s stunningly presented silken organic tofu, topped with a small mound of snow crab, dried shrimp and chunked avocado and jauntily adorned with tufts of cilantro and a dark thatch of dried seaweed. Served with a delicate handmade flatbread and an intense, sweet soy reduction, it was captivating and inspired. Another attractively plated small dish was the yee sang: several pieces of thinly sliced albacore tuna fanned out like a pretty flower, trickled with a bracing Chinkiang vinegar sauce and garnished with a perplexing scatter of edible banana-yellow grass (which tasted, not surprisingly, like grass), identified on the menu as “popcorn shoots.”
Other dishes I might return for are the purplish beef tongue, slow-braised in a flavorful oxtail broth, and a feather-light snow crab and asparagus fried rice. And the mussels—immersed in an assertive Shaoxing rice wine and black bean broth and served with a lemon wedge dipped prettily in seven-spice powder—were tricky to remove from their shells with chopsticks but ultimately were worth the effort.
Less successful dishes included the shrimp chow mein—it took some determined spelunking to locate the dish’s few pink crustaceans. The chili shrimp (Ngo’s rendition, I’m guessing, of honey walnut shrimp) were heavily battered and served with a too-sweet honey-spiked aïoli, candied pistachios and thinly sliced serrano chilies—a marvelously creative presentation, but one that was far prettier to look at than to eat.
The restaurant is gorgeous. If you visited G.V. Hurley’s, you’ll remember the comfortable, liberating spaciousness and the striking brick bar area, oversized fireplace and deep, cozy booths. But Red Lotus feels warmer and more exotic with its rich, sexy red walls and colorful paper lanterns hanging like oversized jewels. The restaurant offers outdoor dining, a delightful option if you’re a people watcher, and the bar is a lively spot to grab a casual bite.
It’s always fun to discover an innovative new menu, especially when it’s crafted by a talented chef like Billy Ngo. And while I think the restaurant has some kinks to work out, Red Lotus is a dynamic addition to midtown.