953 East Sahara Ave., Las Vegas, NV 89104
Web: Lotus of Siam
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"Lotus of Siam has been touted for years as the single best Thai restaurant in North America, and its owner Saipin Chutima has been featured in Gourmet Magazine for her accomplishments."
During the week we spent in Las Vegas, we had so many memorable meals - good and bad - that we could easily have filled the entire Buffalo Chow page with articles, but out of respect for readers who mightn't be so interested in dining outside the area, we've compressed the experiences into three articles: the first dealt with Joël Robuchon at the Mansion, the second focuses on a few less well-known burger, tapas, and buffet options, and this one, the third, looks at two places that are famous inside and outside of Las Vegas: Thomas Keller's Bouchon, and Saipin Chutima's Lotus of Siam. Many additional photographs and details can be seen in our Las Vegas restaurant photo gallery on Facebook.
Lotus of Siam. We love Thai food, and having spent time in Thailand - including two successive attempts to locate decidedly better Thai restaurants than the ones in Western New York - we've long maintained that many Buffalonians don't realize how great we have it here: between the several restaurants mentioned in our 2010 Top 100 List, there's no shortage of truly fantastic, authentic Thai food in this area, and it takes a lot of work to find places that are definitively better than Jasmine Thai, The King and I, and Taste of Thai. As it turns out, Las Vegas has one of the only ones we've located: a small but admired restaurant called Lotus of Siam.
Lotus of Siam has been touted for years as the single best Thai restaurant in North America, and its owner Saipin Chutima has been featured in Gourmet Magazine for her accomplishments - the sort of hype that generally has us skeptical from moment one. But having visited Lotus of Siam for years, often twice per visit to Las Vegas, we're willing to jump on that bandwagon; the menu is literally packed with dishes most Thai diners in the United States have never heard of, including Northern and Northeastern (Issan) Thai items such as homemade jerky, an Issan catfish version of Tom Yum soup, and dishes rich with chilied curry. Spice is a key element in Lotus of Siam's dishes, and though a 0-10 scale is offered to help you control the heat, we've found the numbers too variable from dish to dish - quite possibly ignored by the kitchen - to rely upon.
That's one of the restaurant's only two flaws, and they're both nearly excusable given the quality and pricing of the food. For instance, the Nua Yang Prik Thai Onn ($16) is a disarmingly dark plate of heavily marinated, charbroiled steak that arrives with a full sprig of black peppercorns and long-sliced red peppers, giving the dish a rustic look and slow, mouth-pleasing burn. Lotus's Roasted Duck Curry ($11) could easily be written off as merely a traditional red curry dish, but the presence of pineapple chunks, cherry tomatoes, and coconut milk sweeten it enough to become distinctive - good enough to enjoy with rice even in the absence of the thin-sliced, tender meat. Other dishes, including the Seafood Chili & Mint Leaves ($18), an almost overwhelmingly tamarind-sauced and shrimp-loaded Mee Krob ($8), and fine though strongly seasoned Garlic Chicken Wings ($9), are featured in our Facebook photo gallery from Las Vegas. Not every dish here is phenomenal, and in fact, the Northern and Issan dishes we've tried in the past are surely acquired tastes relative to the dishes mentioned above, but Lotus of Siam can be counted upon for consistently tasty and reasonably-priced meals.
Given its reputation, what's surprising about this restaurant is its completely non-glamorous location: off the Las Vegas strip, it's almost anonymous in a dingy shopping plaza - truly, one of the skeeziest such places we've seen in that city - and a dumpster was parked out front on the first of our two visits last week. Yet it's always packed, with lines of people waiting for tables. There's a lesson there, and one that Western New York's Thai restaurants have already taken to heart: when the quality of the food speaks for itself, it's easy to build an amazing - even national - reputation despite your location. That said, we could only imagine how much more successful Lotus of Siam would be in a nicer venue.
Bouchon. Normally, we would write a full article dealing solely with Bouchon (3355 Las Vegas Blvd S., Las Vegas, NV 89109, 702.414.6200) the Las Vegas bistro owned by famed chef Thomas Keller - the man behind the Napa Valley restaurant French Laundry, New York's Per Se, and additional locations of Bouchon in Napa, New York, and now Beverly Hills. Two of Keller's restaurants have won three Michelin stars, and Keller personally won Chef of the Year awards throughout the late 1990's and early 2000's - he is amongst the most admired and reportedly detail-obsessed chefs in the United States. Interestingly, despite the largely French focus of his restaurants, he has a thing for hamburgers, and has been planning a gourmet burger shop for years - our server told us that one of the burgers will debut at the new Beverly Hills location of Bouchon, the opening of which was a higher priority than the Keller burger restaurant.
There ultimately isn't a lot to say about Bouchon except to generally praise it for the quality of its brasserie-style cuisine. Arriving early for a 5:00 reservation, we sat at the long bar and enjoyed an absinthe drip from what was described as an antique fountain, its dual spigots allowing drops of water to fall on a sugar cube, sweetening and diluting the anise-flavored Lucid in our glass. And when we were seated at our table, our menus were - as at Jojo Bistro - used cutely as wrappings for our napkins, and we unfolded them to discover a list of items we'd heard much of before: oysters that have been claimed to be amongst the country's best, mussels and french fries akin to ones served at Parisian moules and frites places, and decadent salads. We ordered, laid back, and enjoyed our meal, all brought out by a legitimately charming, almost casual server who spoke with the sort of relaxed attitude that comes from quiet confidence in being able to recommend and deliver outstanding food.
But was Bouchon really outstanding? No. The french fries - pommes frites - which were famously hyped up by Anthony Bourdain as the "best in the world," were merely twice-fried in peanut oil for a lasting, low-grease crispness, possibly their only distinction from the ones served at fast food restaurants such as Five Guys. At $7 per portion, they were fine, but we wouldn't bother to order them again. Bouchon's Moules au Safran - saffron, white wine, and mustard-steamed mussels - were generously portioned and delicious but physically small, with quality prevailing over size; we had a half portion rather than the standard $28.50 entree plate. The Gigot d' Agneau ($33.50) leg of lamb entree was cooked to a savory, slightly gamey light medium rare, but served atop an unpleasantly bland pile of barley, collared greens, and nicoise olives. Finally, a plate of the infamously challenging Boeuf Bourguignon ($34.50) was served as a tender triangular cut of steak finished with a red wine glaze, literally gleaming with beauty, but nothing special in flavor.
The highlight of our meal was a plate of six oysters ($18), two Kusshi from Washington, two Wellfleet from Massachusetts, and two P.E.I. Shiny Sea Oysters, all raw, and all superb - fresh, served perfectly chilled, and delicious with or without the included slice of lemon; the price was only forgivable because of their quality. Our meal ended with a dessert called Bouchon ($9), its contents referencing the English translation of the restaurant's name ("Cork"): three cork-shaped Valrhona chocolate brownies were topped with mint chocolate, hazelnut, and coffee ice cream balls. Bouchon's homemade mint chocolate ice cream was touted before our order as amazing, but it was merely good, and nothing to write home about; the brownies were, by comparison, hauntingly strong because of the quality of the chocolate.
What we found most interesting about Bouchon was a reference made by our server mid-meal: Thomas Keller, he noted, is now a brand beyond the chef; Bouchon might bear his name, but the Las Vegas restaurant has its own cook and management. Consequently, though the place is beautifully decorated, given a special location in a tower at the Venetian hotel, and generally well-regarded, it's as modestly involved with Thomas Keller as an individual as the B&B Ristorante downstairs is with Mario Batali - you won't find Keller in the kitchen making food here. The days of celebrity chef-endorsed restaurants are by no means nearing an end, but to the extent that the restaurant list on the Vegas strip is starting to resemble the weekly schedule of the Food Network, complete with way too much Emeril and too many Bobby Flay, Mario Batali, and other "big name" places to count, the concept's becoming tiresome. A place like Bouchon would be common - forgettable, even - in France; it's a nice restaurant, but stands out in Las Vegas more due to its pedigree than its cuisine.