We were waiting for the server to bring the check, chatting and spooning blood-orange sorbetto. The topic turned to the notion of the “contract” between a restaurant and a diner, which is implicit as soon as the diner takes a seat.
There are certain conditions and expectations to that “you feed me, I pay you” model, of course. One is the Menu Clause, which essentially states, “Here’s what we have, take your pick.” Sure, daily specials help with flexibility, but still that clause (and the “no substitutions” rule) is pretty much irrevocable at most middle-brow restaurants.
How about tweaking that contract to allow for off-menu dishes, someone suggested. We agreed that few diners dare to ask for special items based on their favorite flavor profiles, seasonal ingredients or whims. When they try, too often the response is something like, “Sorry, the chef says the kitchen’s too busy.” Sure, there are exceptions, but we’ve found that not many restaurants accept the challenge of creating something spontaneously. Frankly, most don’t want to be bothered. Those places could get a clue from destination restaurants whose A-list chefs welcome opportunities to showcase their creativity and delight customers.
With all that in mind, we called around and learned that Lotus 8 Chinese restaurant in Folsom relishes the challenge of off-menu orders. That’s thanks mostly to managing partner Kirby Wen, who came to the United States 30 years ago from Toishan in southern China.
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“When we opened (in 2013) we didn’t take that approach,” said Wen. “We offered just what we had on the menu. Then some customers started asking, ‘Can you make this dish or that dish?’ That happened often enough to make me think, ‘If there’s a demand for (off-menu items), maybe we should do them. That (concept) got incorporated into our cooking system. Now we encourage our customers to (order off-menu) because it expands their repertoires beyond sweet-and-sour and pork fried rice.”
Further, Wen broadened the Lotus 8 menu from strictly Cantonese cuisine to “the flavors of Southeast Asia,” adding dishes such as Vietnamese lemongrass-chili beef, Thai three-flavor prawns, Singaporean seafood soup and Filipino pork sisig.
Wen’s role is an anomaly, as it’s rare in Chinese restaurants for front-of-the-house management to be hands-on in the kitchen. “Chinese chefs are very territorial,” he explained.
Two lunch pals and I put our trust in Wen, who began by asking questions: What are your favorite Asian foods? Do you prefer meat over seafood? If so, what kinds? Spicy or mild? Noodles or rice? What types of vegetables?
In part, one lunch pal told him, “I like vegetables, curries and noodles, but nothing too spicy.”
A second said, “I like lighter fare, no heavy sauces, and a little spicy.”
My response: “I like seafood and plenty of heat.”
Wen consulted with chef Dang Tsung, and the servings that followed were delightfully fresh, cleanly flavored and diverse in texture ($9 to $18 each). We started with “wontons swim in red chili oil,” a plate of classic Hong Kong dumplings stuffed with minced pork, shrimp and scallion, topped with a crumble of dried-shrimp flakes and sitting in a pool of relatively tame chili oil. “They’re full of meat, but they’re not dense,” said one pal. “This is a symphony for the mouth,” said the other.
Next up were tender chunks of luffa gourd (in the cucumber family), wokked with fluffy egg, garlic and shallots in a thin sauce. The flavors and textures were perfect complements.
In dish No. 3, slices of dark, tender beef joined oyster and beech mushrooms (the skinny ones with long stems), scallions and a whole garlic plant Wen had pulled out of his home garden that morning. Again, wow!
A mild green curry with vegetables and calamari, scallops and prawns was ladled over squares of crisp-cooked rice, the same that goes into sizzling rice soup. A backdrop of coconut joined the slightly briny flavor of the seafood, while the rice added just the right crunch.
Plump in-the-shell clams were flavored with Thai basil, fragrant kaffir lime, chili paste and chili peppers in deep, dark sauce, a dish whose heat and layers of tastes were addictive.
Finally, bowls of dessert-like “prawn salad” showed up, a chilled and refreshing mix of diced avocado, mango and apple in cream sauce, spiked with al dente shrimp.
“I feel like I’ve been on a food voyage,” someone said.
How soon can we go again?
P.S.: If you’re a restaurateur who encourages your customers to order off-menu, drop me an email for inclusion in a possible follow-up column.
Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.
199 Blue Ravine Road, Folsom
Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays
How much: $-$$
Information: (916) 351-9278, www.lotus8folsom.com