Lotus, What Went Wrong?
Two months ago, Eater reported that the reservations system had gone dead at New York's Lotus of Siam, and the restaurant appeared to be closed, though there was no posted sign, and the phone message inviting customers to come in played merrily on. It still does today, but just recently brown paper went up in the windows, which at least gives its ardent fans some sort of...um...closure.
It was nearly two years ago - in Fall, 2010 - that the place opened in Greenwich Village at the corner of West 10th and Fifth Avenue amid much fanfare. It was the first and only branch of a renowned Las Vegas café, far from the Strip, that Jonathan Gold had referred to with some enthusiasm as the best Thai restaurant in the country.
The food was pungent, herbal, and cheap at the original location. Yes, fiery Isaan food was featured on the menu, but there were curries and basil stir fries and fish mousses and other amazing dishes, too.
But while the original location was downscale and totally affordable, the New York branch - located in an effete neighborhood in an expensive residential hotel storefront - was wildly expensive from the get-go, at least compared to the Vegas location, which was situated in what is often described as a sketchy neighborhood.
And the New York branch had an expensive wine list inherited from the previous white-glove establishment that featured, among a bewildering number of choices, lots of saturated reds that might be the last thing you'd want to drink with spicy Southeast Asian fare.
The menu had been dumbed down, with substitutions of luxury ingredients like steak for plebeian foodstuffs like ground pork. Here's how I put it in a review published in December, 2010 ("Lotus of Siam Rolls the Dice"): "Our [New York's] menu is one-third the length of Sin City's, omitting all sorts of interesting ingredients - catfish, jackfruit, beef liver, and pork jerky - offered in Nevada. While the Vegas menu features 18 types of noodles, mainly priced at $8.95, ours lists only 4, from $14 to $22. The portions tend to be small, too, though they've gradually grown larger in response to customer outcry."
To sum up, Thai food aficionados - and NYC has many - found the food tame and too expensive, while luxury diners found little to love that was even partially familiar. Too bad, because if the restaurant had located in Elmhurst or even in Hell's Kitchen and was less pricey, it would have become every bit as popular as Sripraphai, which has demonstrated that there is a market for unreconstructed, wildly spicy Asian food in the city. And a growing one, as Mission Chinese recently demonstrated.
Advice to restaurateurs from outside targeting the city: Don't underestimate New York diners. We, too, enjoy the odd, the arcane, and the downright spicy, and there's a market here for nearly any kind of food. But watch the price point. Substituting luxury ingredients for plain ones doesn't necessarily make the food any better, and New Yorkers are very good at detecting culinary forgeries. And the location of a restaurant can make or break a new establishment. There's no substitute for consulting with the locals (and no, I don't mean real estate agents) before moving in. Good luck!