Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2008

Buddha smiles on Silver Spring's Lotus Café

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The crispy fried fish at the new Lotus Café Vietnamese Restaurant is not the whole head and tail on the bone variety. Instead, it's a pair of flaky boneless filets of tilapia rubbed with minced lemon grass and salt, then gently fried. The crisp lemony breading is complimented by a slaw of julienne carrots and taro root tossed in a slightly acidic mirin dressing, and garnished with lettuce, tomatoes and sprigs of fresh cilantro. These are fresh ingredients, well composed and presented, and at $12.99, the dish is innovative and satisfying.

Lotus Café opened July 10 in the spot formerly occupied by My-Le. It faces the pink railing of the train overpass just off Sligo Avenue, and street parking is good right around the restaurant. The patio deck, decorated with string lights and plastic banana trees, is a pleasant place to sit on a warm evening, despite the occasional passing freight train.

The pallet of Vietnamese ingredients is not complicated. With its spicy chilies, sprigs of fresh herbs, lean meats and seafood or tofu, and a minimum of fats and oils, Vietnamese cuisine is designed to refresh and nourish in a hot humid climate. Vietnamese cuisine is particularly considerate of vegetarians; at least seven vegetarian entrees are on Lotus' menu.

Sampling a wide variety of appetizers and dipping sauces is a great way to start. The salad or summer roll, the classic Vietnamese appetizer, is made by the book: vermicelli rice noodles, herbs, shredded lettuce and your choice of shrimp, chicken or tofu tightly wrapped in rice paper and served with a rich yet mild peanut sauce. Imperial rolls are more indulgent salad rolls, with crispy fried pork and wonton skins added to the mix. Lotus' beef wrapped in grape leaves are about three bites of mildly seasoned ground beef wrapped in a briny leaf, grilled to perfection at the order and served with a refreshing citrus dipping sauce.

Lotus's combo of grilled skewers — beef, chicken, shrimp or pork — is also great for sharing and dipping. The meats and shrimp on each skewer are tender and flavorful from proper marinating. Grilled just right, they are served with a sweet and sour chili dipping sauce. The skewers reappear on the menu as an entrée salad, atop a bowl of dressed greens, vermicelli rice noodles, crushed roasted peanuts and a sprig of fresh mint.

The dipping sauce completes Vietnamese noodles and appetizers. The silky rice wrapper of the steamed pot stickers is designed to pick up just the right coating of jalapeno and sesame dipping sauce on its way to the mouth. Fried won tons are large triangles of crispy goodness served with a soy-based sauce. While the coating on the calamari fries is tasty and good for dipping, there is too much coating and too little calamari. Coconut butterfly shrimp is also a bit heavy on the slightly sweet coconut coating and light on shrimp.

French colonists left an indelible mark on Vietnamese cuisine. The origin of pho, the iconic steaming bowl of rice noodles, meats, sprouts and herbs served in a rich beef consommé, is the classic French braised beef dish pot au feu. At Lotus, pho is an event. The consommé is flavored with chilies and anise; the ultra-thinly sliced beef cooks on contact with the hot broth; the rice noodles are silky and translucent, and the sprigs of herbs and bean sprouts are crunchy and bursting with flavor.

The bottle of Sriracha hot chili sauce at the table should be used sparingly. Just the right amount of Sriracha brings out the flavors of lime and basil; too much, and the pallet is overwhelmed and begs for the relief of a "33" Vietnamese beer.

Of the entrees, the whole fish is the champion. A close second is the hot house steak (bo luc lac): cubes of lean steak seared in a very hot wok, then finished with jalapenos, roasted red and green peppers, scallions and onions, and served with a dipping sauce of lime juice and black pepper. Cashew chicken arrives scalding hot from the wok. Morsels of chicken are seared, and then the gravy is built in the same hot pan with dense brown sauces and cashew nuts.

The food at Lotus is not as much about complicated techniques or exotic ingredients as it is about fresh ingredients, minimal handling and layers of textures and flavors simply presented. We asked our server to select our menu for us, and he was happy to oblige. Appetizers and shared entrees came out in good order, and the house was pleased to demonstrate the talent in the kitchen and the hospitality of the service.