Lotus Blue, serving food inspired by China’s Yunnan Province, has soft-opened in the Reade Street space that was formerly Nam. “Yunnan is in the southwest of China,” says Jeffrey Lim, one of the four partners behind the restaurant. “It borders Vietnam, Laos, and Burma, and the cuisine is infused by many cultures, with Southeast Asian ingredients like cilantro, banana leaf, and ginger.”
While Lotus Blue isn’t serving traditional Yunnan food (“It’s been adapted for modern palates, for New Yorkers,” says Lim), it’s still the only Yunnan restaurant in New York City and possibly on the East Coast. “There are Yunnan restaurants in L.A., Las Vegas, Chicago…” says Robert Zhu, another Lotus Blue partner, explaining how they were surprised there weren’t any here. [UPDATE: See comments]
“Yunnan cuisine is actually popular in many cities around the world,” adds Lim.
They originally looked at locations in Hell’s Kitchen, but the area was too price-competitive. “We were drawn to Tribeca because people are a little more educated about food,” says Lim. “It’s more upscale.” They saw Nam, and met with the owner, who was looking to get out—and it certainly didn’t hurt that the kitchen lent itself to Asian cooking (“We have three huge woks”).
The Lotus Blue folks turned the back of the space into more of a bar, sectioning it off by raising it about six inches. And while Nam’s tiny bar counter was against the rear of the right-hand wall, Lotus Blue has pulled it away from the wall just enough for the kitchen door to be moved behind it (instead of opening into the dining room). “Nam wasn’t really about interesting cocktails,” says Lim. “Our specialty cocktail menu has spice-infused drinks and savory flavors such as chili, Szechuan peppercorns, and basil-muddled vodka and rum.”
They invited Adam and me to dinner on the first night of soft-opening. We tried a gorgeous and delicious mango-and-banana-flower salad, matchstick fries with fried basil and mint (hard to maneuver but worth the effort), fried red snapper with a chili sweet and sour sauce, stir-fried trumpet mushrooms and bamboo shoots, and Yunnan seared buns. The Southeast Asian flavors were abundant—mint, basil, and chili, in particular—and I made a mental note to remind anyone seeing “Modern Chinese Cooking” on the sandwich board outside not to go in expecting Chinese-Chinese.
The cultural cross-pollination, meanwhile, extends to the team, with members from Korea, Tibet, Vietnam, China, the Philippines…. And it was a Thai artist who painted the lotus on one of the restaurant’s walls.
The soft opening—including 10% off the entire bill—will continue for a week or so, and happy-hour specials are in effect. As for delivery, Lotus Blue has no plans to offer it at this time. “But we’ve already received lots of requests,” says Lim. “We’ll see how it goes.”
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