Red Lotus Kitchen and Bar
2718 J Street
Sacramento, CA 95816-4314
Red Lotus is the latest Midtown venture of Kru chef Buu "Billy" Ngo, whose fascinating riffs on Japanese food have won him a not-inconsiderable following at his J Street sushi joint. Red Lotus represents Ngo's decison to apply his creative hand to dim-sum, an Asian food genre that hasn't quite managed to transcend the old carts-and-Cantonese-verbal-abuse dynamic. (Course', that's part of dim sums charm for some of us infidels, but, regardless). The menu features a bunch of old dim-sum standbys updated for the late-night hipster army, alongside some specifically Ngoesque dishes. The result is a fun and undeniably interesting evening out on the J street strip, albeit with the ambience of P.F Changs done through some sort of hipster filter. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes we want to eat upscale dim sum in a nice clean place where no one will shout at us in machine-gun bursts of Cantonese while we desperately attempt to hold onto chicken-feet with plastic chopsticks, okay? Is that really so wrong?
(Good lord, the entire culture is obsessed with hipsters, my generation is obsessed with hipsters, we engage in hipster witch-hunts although it is entirely a given that we are all hipsters, that our status is both unchangeable and endlessly embarrassing. How sad.)
Green papaya salad with ika, carrot, mint, water cress, and fish sauce (6.50)
This is the kitchen's version of the dearly beloved som tum. It's a lovely palate-cleansing dish, but this ultra light version was barely there, both in terms of portion size and taste. I really do hate to use this phrase in polite company, but perhaps Red Lotus should contemplate kicking it up a notch. You know how we do.
Silken organic tofu with baby shrimp, avocado, snow crab, rice puffs, wasabi, sweet chili sauce, and a soy reduction (8.00)
Silken tofu doesn't exactly get most folks palms sweaty, but this was the standout dish of the evening. The creamy block of tofu melded perfectly with the salty baby shrimp, the sweet snow crab, and the creamy avocado. The various sauces on offer mean that every bite of this "salad" is different from the next, producing a real adventure in texture and taste. The soy reduction sauce should rightly be sold in bottles so fans can spread it on anything they desire, from fairy cakes to pliable Argentinean pool boys. Delicious.
Spiced beef marrow bone with Chinese red vinegar, Sichuan pickles, mustard, and crispy five spice flatbread (11.00)
Marrow bones have experienced a helluva revival thanks to the ongoing Offal Revolution, and Red Lotus is serving up the tastiest version I've found in Sactown. The fatty, chunky interior is seasoned with five spice and cooked until bubbly and delicious, served with various accompaniments and condiments. You're supposed to spread the marrow on the flatbread crackers and doctor it up with pickles, vinegar, and mustard, but I'm perfectly happy to denude these bad boys straight. You are doing it/Red Lotus wrong if you fail to order this dish. (I'll be in my bunk. With the marrow bones).
Salt and pepper soft shell crabs (11.00)
Salt and pepper soft shell crabs are beautifully presented in this dish, and they tasted pretty good too. Lightly fried and obviously fresh, I enjoyed the creamy and spicy sauce pool the little crustaceans were served in. They came out hot, which is the usual horrible and depressing downfall of soft-shell crab dishes.
Chinese broccoli in garlic oyster sauce (7.00)
Chinese broccoli sounds fairly pedestrian but is among the foods closest to my heart - the sort of thing I seem to cook on a tri-weekly basis to devour in front of my laptop in my college apartment. (Good lord, those days are over). Red Lotus serves it up with a soulful and extremely strong house-made garlic oyster sauce, and the result is pretty old-school Chinese delicious. Avoid if you're not the sort of person who does backflips for in-your-face servings of oyster sauce.
Mongolian glazed oxtail (7.00)
Oxtails are done beautifully in Chinese cooking, and these sweet-glazed oxtails were a lovely specimen of a classic dish. Very rich and very meaty, these guys justify the foodie world's recent and single-minded allegiance to less-charismatic animal parts. Tasty.
"Yee Sang" thinly sliced albacore with popcorn shoots, Chinkiang vinaigrette, and crispy garlic (12.00)
I think the Sacramento City Council actually shuts down your restaurant and breaks your knee caps if you fail to include at least one raw tuna dish on the menu. It's true.
Regardless. This was a perfectly fine Raw Tuna dish, and the addition of popcorn shoots (whatever those are) lent it an interestingly grassy flavor-kick. There's more interesting stuff lurking on this menu, though.
Pork and shiitake dumplings "Siu Mai" with soy cured salmon roe (6.50)
We decided to have some siu mai for dessert, served in the traditional and adorable little bamboo steamer. The kitchen brings out vinegar and Chinese mustard in twee serving devices for these little guys, which tasted no different from other dim-sum parlor siu mai I've had. This is by no means a bad thing.
Billy Ngo has done a fine job of domesticating dim-sum, turning China's beloved Sunday morning-scrum cuisine into refined bites suitable for both J Street-crawling foodies and those hipster palates only slightly dimmed by endless, endless packs of Pall Malls. (If you've been to China, well, you've seen how they smoke). The menu is interesting, and due to the restaurant's extreme youth, will doubtless be changing in interesting ways over the next year or so. If Ngo's creativity and competency at Kru is any indication of Red Lotus's upcoming trajectory, the future is bright indeed.