My Recent Asian Adventures

Lotus of Siam's khao soi

Over the last week, I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy two stellar Asian meals – one in Las Vegas, the other in Chicago. Let’s begin out west. Last week I felt particularly inspired (and a little guilty, not having been outside for more than 24 hours) and walked the three miles from Caesar’s Palace to 953 E. Sahara, home of Lotus of Siam.


Isaan-style sausage from Lotus of Siam

I had worked up quite an appetite in the course of that one hour stroll, and I jumped right into the Northern/Isaan-style menu with some slightly funky homemade sausage. Seasoned with garlic, ginger and more than a few tiny prik – Thai bird chiles – the sausage had a coarseness and a mouthfeel that I simply adored, and just couldn’t stop eating, knowing full well we were going to be eating again immediately after this meal. On the side, freshly-cut batons of ginger root, a wedge of cabbage and a few tiny peanuts offer crunchy oral fire hydrants, quickly disseminating any residual heat.


The pride of Chiang Mai has always been khao soi (for proof, read this story from the New York Times’ Travel section a few weeks ago) and Lotus’ is among the best I’ve had in the States. It begins with a rich, coconut-laced curry that’s embedded with bits of chicken, but also boiled egg noodles. Those noodles are echoed from above, in the form of crispy, fried noodles, which provide a healthy, sustained crunch. On the side, a beautiful little assortment of pickled greens, fresh shallots and lime is presented on a small plate; they brighten the flavors in the bowl and add another layer of bite and complexity. The dish isn’t crazy-spicy, but it does pack a punch, which is all the more reason to have it mitigated by the wonderful selection of rieslings and gewurtztraminers from Lotus’ compelling and impressive list. We decided to stay close to the Mosel River in Germany.

The 2009 riesling kabinett from Schloss Saarsteiner was a steal, and its crisp, mineral tang also presented us with the slightest bit of residual sugar, which more than off-set the fiery notes from the sausage and khao soi. This is what I love about these wines, their remarkable structure and balance. Please don’t ever confuse them with the Blue Nuns and lesser-known swill from Michigan that has unfortunately dominated the domestic discussion of this world-class varietal.


Lotus' nam prik noom


Another fiery starter – nam prik noom – is essentially a chili dip with a number of dipping vessels with which to bring it to your mouth: fried pork skin, carrots, cabbage and cucumbers are all fine assistants. As we moved onward – a milder jackfruit-embedded red curry and a ground larb (salad) of pork, cilantro, crunchy peanuts and lime – we also moved on to a spätlese-style riesling from Joh. Jos. Prüm. Again, the acidity and structure of this wine was just a pure pleasure to drink, and while my companions remarked how spicy the food was, we kept dutifully dousing it with these beautifully austere, elegant wines.


Katsu at work behind the sushi bar


On a slightly different note, a few days earlier I had the last-minute idea to stop in at Katsu, one of Chicago’s finest little Japanese gems. I was on my way to try the kalbi at Solga, but decided to call an audible and see if there was a table available at Katsu instead. I’m so glad it wasn’t busy (but at the same time, was more than a little puzzled as to why there were so many seats available on a Saturday night). Most purists in Chicago, when asked which sushi restaurant towers above all others, routinely refer to this tiny, homey little restaurant in the same breath as Mirai or Arami.


The man himself was there, front and center, behind the cozy sushi bar, while his wife – who hasn’t aged in a decade – politely solicits drink requests and greets regular customers with the enthusiasm of a mother welcoming her children back from college. I simply asked Katsu for an omakase, essentially a tasting menu, and let him decide what to serve. One of the finest starters we had was a simple soup, full of thinly-sliced Oregon mushrooms and a broth that was as holistic as it was delicious, a perfect little teapot filled with a soothing broth. As you poured it into your tiny cup, the broth would continue to develop complexity and richness, an almost perfect umami storm.


Nigiri assortment at Katsu

Needless to say, the sushi was the highlight. Freshly-sliced pieces of toro, red snapper, giant clam and yellowtail – each one from a different part of the country or the globe (Katsu volunteers this information without prompting, and would probably show you the bills of lading if you asked). The key here is the rice, of course; the man knows how to cook it and season it, so that, rather than the clumpy starch bomb you typically find at the neighborhood grocery store or Thai-owned “sushi” joint, his nigiri pieces are mini-works of art; each one more delicate and delicious than the next. Some of my Twitter followers commented that they disliked Katsu’s propensity to slice larger-than-normal pieces of fish over his rice, but I think the fish-to-rice ratio works even better in this case, and the fact he adds that tiny dab of wasabi to bind them together provides a whisper of heat.


Katsu’s sashimi is also notable. Bits of gold leaf appear as frequently as flecks of tobiko to provide minor accents, be they salty or simply for texture. Cuts are generous and exceedingly fresh. Please don’t insult the man by dumping clumps of wasabi into your soy sauce here; like all aspects of Japanese cuisine, restraint and modesty are paramount. Each component plays off of the other, while the individual ingredients’ main purpose, it seems, is to serve the whole.


Two completely different meals in the course of a week, and two experiences that will go down as among the best I’ve had in 2011.



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