White refrigerator trucks were pulling out of the building next door as we walked past a couple of bouncers behind a red velvet rope and into a dark hallway. Out of the gloom appeared a ravishingly beautiful young woman with close-cropped hair, dressed in a blue spaghetti-strap blouse and black Capri pants. She led us into a vast, two-story room where the walls were painted in blocks of gold and amber so they looked like panels of a screen. They were set with large oval banquettes, a few steps up from a dance floor that had a small stage at one end. Opposite was a long mahogany bar, back-lit so its bottles of liquor shone like jewels. Two young women in silk slip dresses were perched on stools, studying the pages of an art magazine over pink cocktails (it was 8 o’clock, still early). Cylindrical lights hung from the ceiling and boutique lamps with red pleated shades cast a soft, rosy hue over the room, making the already good-looking crowd look even better. The setting was less Manhattan meat-packing district than 1950′s supper club. (Or the Eden Roc Hotel in Miami. Remember how we used to laugh at that style? It’s back!)
And it’s very seductive. The supper club vanished in the 60′s, along with Crème de Menthe cocktails, Black Russian Sobranie cigarettes and the Merry Widow bra. But Lotus has brought it back. This restaurant, lounge and dance club is the antithesis of the sort of noisy, overcrowded place with ghastly bathrooms where you have to go when you want to dance in New York. It’s sumptuous and elegant, a sort of modern Stork Club, three floors of separate dining rooms, each decorated in its own style, with reflecting pools and limestone walls. The big banquettes downstairs are set up more for old-fashioned necking than talking (if there are only four of you, you have to huddle at one end for general conversation, and I noticed other patrons had broken into groups of two as the evening wore on). One night, two of us were led into the small, sexy back dining room that seats 30 and whose ceiling was covered with a bed of silk hydrangeas dyed purple; there were soft red booths and a dance floor in the center. The music was terrific, building as the evening progressed, but not so loud as to make talk impossible.
The food is as ambitious as the setting it’s served in. Executive chef Richard Farnabe opened Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Mercer Kitchen in Soho and was most recently Tommy Hilfiger’s private and corporate chef. But I feel he’s still experimenting with the food at Lotus. Perhaps he feels that the sort of people who are willing to fork out $46 for a two-course prix-fixe dinner need some fireworks to make them think they’re getting their money’s worth (even if it is 10 percent of what they’d pay at Alain Ducasse, without the dancing). So there are luxuries like foie gras and lobster on the menu, and “amuse-gueules” sent out between courses.
We began dinner one night with a dish I found truly idiotic: foie gras soufflé. Why would you want to lose the whole point of foie gras, its firm but buttery texture, by whipping it up into a froth with eggs? And then compound the injury by stuffing it into a boiled potato? Even the rhubarb port sauce, which was a nice idea with its balance of tart and sweet, failed to rescue this disaster. Foie gras made another ill-advised appearance inside a fillet of John Dory, with chanterelles. It was awful, and the fish was mushy to boot.
I was intrigued by the pairing of crayfish with beef marrow in a tartlet, but this marriage, if not a total disaster, certainly lacked spark. The dish was as bland as hotel food. Black sea bass carpaccio had a woolly texture, as though it had been sitting in its coriander dressing long enough for the acids to break it down–perhaps the ribbons of cantaloupe had worked on it in the way papaya tenderizes meat. And even when the essential ingredients were nicely prepared, such as tuna tartare chopped into small dice, Mr. Farnabe couldn’t leave well enough alone, but had to toss in some raisins and roasted pinenuts. I didn’t mind the pinenuts, but the raisins were weird.
The two best first courses were the most focused. Ravioli, stuffed with ricotta, were delicious, silken pillows nestled under a layer of bright green puréed herbs. Sautéed sea scallops were juicy and served on a bed of julienned roasted beets with a clementine sauce. This was a wonderful play of textures and tastes. A creamy chicken rillette with apple and celery salad was also pleasant.
Rare roast loin of lamb was marred by a tomato-and-onion marmalade that was too sweet, but was served with braised fennel and wonderful little garlicky potatoes that were melting in the middle. Lobster bouillabaisse came with a tomato-and-brandy sauce that tasted as though the alcohol had not been boiled off properly. Roasted turbot was served with a harshly spicy orange-carrot sauce on a bed of puréed carrots. The plate was a dazzling orange. Chicken baked in a salt crust came out tender and juicy, and here it was flavored with lemongrass and ginger, which sounded good. But the meat was so salty I needed a beer to get it down.
Wine expert Josh Wesson has put together a list that is interesting and international, but offers no real bargains. The cheapest reds start at $40, including a very good Chapoutier Crozes Hermitage. There are seven whites between $23 and $38, and then it jumps to $45.
Before dessert, the kitchen sent out a nice little casserole of sautéed raspberries with crème fraîche. I liked this better than most of the desserts we tasted. Cromesqui of chocolate–small, deep-fried, rather leathery balls that burst open with melted chocolate when you pierce them with your fork–didn’t do much for me, nor did the wimpy chocolate “pyramid.” But the cannelloni of crème brûlée under a spun sugar hairnet was rich and creamy, and a refreshing salad of sliced pineapple and mango with lemon sorbet and mint was just the ticket on a hot night.
The old supper clubs were never famous for their cuisine. As a restaurant, Lotus has a ways to go. As a nightclub, though, it couldn’t be better. A cabaret license is awaited and there are plans for live bands. But in the meantime, there’s a great D.J. who plays music that makes you get out of your seat. There’s a cover charge ($10 to $20 per person) if you’re not eating. Next time I think I’ll have dinner down the block and show up at Lotus around 11, when it’s really happening.
62 West Ninth Street
Noise level: High later in the evening, but the music is terrific
Wine list: Well chosen but expensive
Credit cards: All major cards
Price range: Two-course prix fixe $46; five-course tasting menu $75; seven-course tasting menu $100
Dinner: Tuesday to Saturday 6 p.m. To 11p.m.; Supper menu Monday to Saturday 6 p.m. To 3a.m.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor