Park Circle hinges on its 30-acre central park, but it's the small strip just east of the green space that draws crowds eager for EVO's wood-fired Neapolitan-style pizzas, The Brew Cellar's rare bottles, or classic Italian fare at Fratello's. These few blocks of East Montague now form the heart, soul, and stomach of this thriving community which has fully rebounded from the 1996 closures of the naval yard. Soon-to-open wine bar Stems & Skins will help solidify East Montague's tasty renaissance, and sleek newcomer Lotus Vietnamese Cuisine, now three months old, already buzzes with regulars.
I don't purport to be an expert on Vietnamese cuisine, so you may wish to temper this review with a side of nuoc cham, but I have inhaled my fair share of steaming pho at Phuong on Rivers Avenue, I can boast a lemongrass beef epiphany at a Vietnamese restaurant in Boston's Chinatown, and I've trolled authentic establishments on Chef Menteur Highway in New Orleans. This much I know: the classic Vietnamese combo of marinated meat, springy rice noodles, soy, fish sauce, fresh basil, cilantro, sprouts, crushed peanuts, jalapeños, scallion oil, and tinge of lime is like crack to my palate. Vietnamese cuisine hits all the salty, sweet, savory, pliant, crunchy, meaty, and slippery notes I crave.
Yet I can't claim to have explored the back country of central Vietnam's Highlands by motorbike as City Paper contributor Jeff Allen did this past year, or feasted on whole mackerel heads in alley markets, or charcoal roasted duck tongues self-served from a smoldering buffet alongside stuffed squid and tripe. I haven't braved the custardy-stinky durian fruit, nor have I followed a relative stranger into a makeshift Vietnam shanty to politely sample dog meat and gasp it down with local 'shine (hats off to Allen for always seeking out and never shying away from the authentic). Folks like Allen would likely peg Lotus as a safely scrubbed up Western lens on Vietnamese cuisine — all choice cuts and no knuckles. And they would be right. But is that such a bad thing?
I must say, Lotus speaks directly to my palate. I love it. Its flavors are clean and clear, its veggies crisp, its herbs fresh. Portions are generous and price-points affordable, well worth the 10-minute drive north of downtown. Some might shrug at the all-too-familiar inclusion of summer rolls (two for $5) nestled in transparent rice paper and served with a spicy peanut dipping sauce, but frankly, they are crunchy and delicious. The green curry mussels appetizer ($7) foregoes a soupy broth for a denser, garlic-coconut-curry sauce, perfect for dredging. I'm a sucker for the green curry at Basil on King downtown, and Basil happens to be powered by the same team that brings us Lotus.
Tail-on, large shrimp ($9) slathered in yellow curry and scallions make for a hearty appetizer over toasted baguette slices, though I must take issue with the quality of the bread itself accompanying both the mussels and the shrimp. What should have a buttery crunch is a rather lackluster, doughy white bread that doesn't pay homage to the considerable French impact on Vietnamese cuisine. The soft, pillowy toast at Lotus could use more crisp and structure to hold up to the creamy curries.
The bread, however, is just a slight speed bump in an otherwise excellent lineup of flavor and texture. Lotus' salads are roll-your-eyes and filling, a dense and generous jumble of julienned veggies, fresh herbs, and light lime dressing accompanied by feather-light crisp chips with a hint of shrimp and garlic called "banh phong tom" popular throughout Southeast Asia. Cucumbers provide the central, light vegetal crunch in the cucumber salad ($8), but flavor is layered through crumbled lemongrass beef, paper-thin slices of Lap Cheong (Vietnamese sausage), cilantro, crunchy fried onions, and peanuts. The juxtaposition of all these ingredients makes for surprisingly tasty nuances in each bite.
Like its sister restaurant Basil, Lotus does not take reservations and bustles by 7 p.m. Individuals fill the long bar, sipping on Asian brews, French chardonnay, or signature cocktails highlighted by fresh basil, lemongrass, or lavender. The shotgun interior sports little nooks in the form of plush raised booths, small center tables, and semi-circle banquettes, plus an adjacent open courtyard reminiscent of the former Chai's Tapas Lounge on King Street. Unlike Basil's open kitchen, Lotus's clattering knives and sizzling woks hide discretely behind a suspended panel of ink drawings, dampening the clatter and upping the elegance factor. The vibe is sophisticated industrial chic, with subdued Asian touches in the artwork, and a thoroughly American playlist from Fleetwood Mac to Bon Jovi.
Pho Ga ($11), a massive bowl of soul-warming chicken broth, swims with tender white pulled chicken meat and slurpy rice noodles, plus fresh bean sprouts, sliced jalapeños, basil, and cilantro on the side for crunch and kick, and an ever-so-subtle hint of lime in the broth. Bo Kho ($14) or Vietnamese-style beef stew, renders spiced chunks of sirloin richly fragrant with taro root and carrots slowly simmered for hours with star anise and lemongrass, all served over thin egg noodles that absorb the dark sauce beautifully.
Shaking Beef ($16), or thit bo luc lac in Vietnam, takes its name for the side-to-side action of the quivering beef cubes in the wok where they are seared before being dressed with a dark soy-mirin sauce then spooned over fresh, crisp onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, and herbs. Cashew chicken ($14) is a far cry from any strip mall Asian take-out I have ever had. It's an absolutely mouth-watering meal carried by the sauce itself, a creamy yellow curry with hints of cardamom, cumin, ginger, and fenugreek. Even the fried rice dish ($10) tastes healthy, courtesy of a medley of fresh ingredients. And that's what I want to emphasize about Lotus. The quality of ingredients and sauces in each dish make the flavors really sing. I was there with a multi-generational group, and even picky children dug into noodle plates with enthusiasm. There was not a single complaint from our crowd, just "Ooh!" and "You've got to try this!" and "Oh man, this is delicious" as plates were passed.
Lotus' co-owner Henry Eang together with his brother Chai have launched a handful of upscale Southeast Asian eateries from here to Charlotte. Theirs is a story of tenacity, of escaping the conflict of 1970s communist Cambodia where their family operated a noodle house, immigrating to the States at young ages knowing no English at all, then growing up to become successful restaurateurs. I like to think of both Basil and Lotus as local testaments to Henry's American Dream, and we as diners the willing beneficiaries. Lotus may be playing it safe with our American palates (no balut eggs, silkworms, organs, or snake meat on this menu), but it offers a delectable introduction to an agrarian-rich and deeply rooted cuisine. Compared to downtown prices, the bang for the buck here is tremendous and should help cement Park Circle's reputation as a culinary destination.