Food with flair
Red Lotus Kitchen & Bar2716 J St.
Sacramento, CA 95816
Marrow. Bone, that is. It’s on the menu at Red Lotus Kitchen & Bar. Right there underneath braised beef tongue and tendon. The marrow, spiced with cumin, is served in the groove of a mastodon-sized bone with vinegar and eye-watering yellow mustard on the side. Rubble, party of four. Paging Mr. Barney Rubble.
Prior to ordering, the bartender advises the marrow is “rich.” Yes, and the Gobi Desert is warm. It’s 118 percent gelatinous fat and, in the main, good only for bragging rights. “Marrow? It rocks. Just sucked some down the other night.”
As dining companion Terrence Clifford Brennand, powerful labor-union leader, accurately notes, the marrow is one of a number of things offered at Red Lotus that won’t be found at most local restaurants. The crisp and refreshing jellyfish salad, with its cucumber spears and Don King crown of seaweed spines, is another.
Red Lotus does for dim sum what Kru, further down J Street, does for sushi: Transcends it. Kru is a lot more than a sushi place. And Red Lotus is way more than a dim sum place, although har gow, a sui mai shook up by shiitake and a fon gor-like scallop, and shrimp dumpling in mushroom broth are offered. There’s a connection. Billy Ngo, one of Kru’s owners, is the force behind Red Lotus.
While the nekkid brick walls and 18-seat horseshoe bar of Lotus’ predecessor G.V. Hurley’s remain, the similarities end there. Ngo offers food with flair: clever combinations, felicitous flavors, presentational panache and dead-on devotion to detail. A lemon wedge accompanies the steamed mussels, which are awash in tart rice wine. One side of the lemon wedge is coated with what the waiter tells my pal Kristin is seven spice. The Chinese cooking stalwart five spice is a powder consisting of cinnamon, fennel, Szechwan pepper, star anise and cloves. Japanese seven spice—shichimi togarashi—also features Szechwan pepper, but the remaining six ingredients differ sharply from five spice: chili powder, nori flakes, black sesame seeds, tangerine or orange peel, poppy seeds, and minced garlic. Add it to the spice cupboard now. Kristin accurately notes the waiter has the “right amount of present and pleasant without being intrusive.”
Even mainstays like chicken chow mein taste singular at Red Lotus. Here again, it’s the shiitake that commands. Other than the oddity and obscene “richness” of the marrow, missteps are hard to find. The sweet glaze and serrano heat of the spicy chili shrimp—honey walnut prawns with mussels and pistachios instead of walnuts—guarantees a return visit all by itself. The steamed tofu with snow crab is also habit-forming. Yee Sang is reminiscent of Nishiki’s Pepperfin or Zen Sushi’s Better Than Sex, with its sliced albacore and ponzu-like vinaigrette. Except there’s flowerlike popcorn shoots and fried garlic in the mix. Again, addicting.
At the presentation pinnacle is a dessert of sweet buns, which taste like beignets, and appear to have spilled from the empty Chinese take-out box on the plate along with some jackfruit and condensed milk.
There’s far more flavor in the kimchi fried rice than the fried rice featuring wagyu, the marvelously marbled Japanese beef. The oxtail is tail-yanking, either glazed or in a stellar soup with daikon and lotus root. There are lots of little bones in the little Peking quails, which sit, legs crossed, wearing wigs of shredded scallions, on a rectangular plate amid intersecting smears of hoisin and a seven spice-zinged honey glaze. There are two small buns for the two teensy birds. A third would be welcome.
Like Kru, a fair amount of money is going to change hands at Red Lotus. The quail is $15. The kimchi rice is $9.50, and the marrow $11. Lunch, a recent addition, has a more proscribed menu, but if things aren’t hoppin’ too hard, the accommodating chefs will conjure up dinner-only fare like the shrimp and scallop dumplings and the mussels. Cash-drain caveat aside, Ngo and his attentive crew keep the wows coming.