Want to understand what it means to be an artist, what the creative process is like? Look at how Red Lotus restaurant turned out. It was new and improved, pretty much reinvented, before it ever opened.
In fact, the carefully conceived menu fell by the wayside during three exhilarating and experimental nights in the kitchen just before the opening.
Billy Ngo, the celebrated owner and sushi chef at Kru, originally had a vision to open a simple, affordable Asian fusion restaurant with a dim sum sensibility a short walk up J Street.
Ngo (pronounced "no"), who recently turned 29, has made a name for himself in the past five years. He is a creative presence on the local food scene, admired by other chefs for a willingness to seek out all kinds of culinary experiences, push boundaries, compel people to look at a cuisine in new ways and, most important, take risks.
Each year, he travels to New York to see what the best and most daring eateries are doing. In Sacramento, he stops in at dives and delves into the cooking. In China, he samples everything from street food to world-class fare. He reads, he watches, he asks, he listens, all with the idea of absorbing knowledge and letting it mix with what he is all about.
When the large, visually striking restaurant space became available in early 2010 after the short-lived G.V. Hurley fizzled out, Ngo got the keys and zeroed in on his ideas. He thought about the menu, wrote it all down. On paper, everything looked solid.
Then he and his cooking staff went into the new kitchen and lit the burners. It was a week before Red Lotus would open. The pressure was on. They started to cook, tweak, explore, experiment – ingredients, flavors, combinations. It was sizzle, smoke and aromas galore from 5 p.m. to 3 a.m., three nights running. There were no customers, thus no pressure to sell anything or tone anything down. They were cooking for one another, to satisfy their desire to be new and exciting and essential.
That's creativity. Start with an idea, create chaos, pretty much destroy the original concept – and wind up in a new place.
This is why many find this new restaurant exciting and others find it confusing, even inauthentic. Ngo isn't trying to redo what's been done. He's not seeking to adhere to tradition. Red Lotus isn't a museum. It's a place for him to share what comes from his mind, his heart, his soul.
"It was going to be a casual restaurant – real casual, real simple. Simple dumplings, noodles, that kind of thing," Ngo said. "But then I couldn't do it. Those three days changed everything."
Red Lotus opened slowly, with a limited menu and little fanfare, several weeks before the grand opening. It was in those first few days that we stopped in and had our first crack at the spicy, rich roasted bone marrow, the innovative silken tofu salad with multiple seasonings and textures, the simple fried rice with superb and subtle Wagyu beef.
Red Lotus these days is in full swing and is an obvious hit, with a sophisticated ambience, intelligent and attentive service, and a compact but eclectic menu unlike anything else around.
If you're a timid eater, stick with the dumplings, pot stickers and chow mein with shrimp or chicken. You'll still enjoy the flavors and have fun in the space, which features rustic brick inner walls juxtaposed with sleek modern décor.
If you're an epicure who appreciates wit and skill, a melding of cuisines into something very Billy Ngo, dive in. Jellyfish in chili oil. Tendon and tongue. That thick, gooey bone marrow you may want to slather over crispy flatbread. Oxtail soup. Pork bellies.
The best way to start is for each person at the table to order two items, then share it all when the food arrives. Most of the dim sum offerings are less than $10, and nothing on the menu is more than $15. Take your time, studying the presentation, the combinations of color and textures and tastes. Still hungry or curious? Order more.
"I can spot the foodies and chefs from other restaurants right away," Ngo said. "The first thing they order is the tendon and tongue."
Granted, putting a tendon or a tongue anywhere near your own tongue sounds horrible if you're a mashed potatoes-and-Salisbury steak kind of eater.
"It sounds really gross," Ngo said with a chuckle. "But if you didn't know, it tastes like really good beef." Here, Ngo takes a classic dim sum dish and transforms it. The tongue is boiled for 90 minutes. Then it is cleaned and the taste buds are stripped off "so it doesn't scare people away," Ngo explained.
The tongue and tendon are braised separately in oxtail broth for another hour. The broth is then reduced and thickened, transferred to a bowl with diced chilies and finished with 15 minutes of steam.
The result is a complex dish with dynamic flavors. The tendon is so tender and gelatinous – simply slurp and then savor it.
The braised pork belly is another dish made with oxtail stock, a recurring flavor base at Red Lotus. This stock is seasoned with soy, sugar and star anise. Oxtail is simply the tail of a cow, usually cooked slowly so the texture breaks down as the flavor builds. Ngo's dish is rich, lustrous, playful, served with steamed buns and kimchee with cucumber, suggesting a barbecue pork bun or an Asian version of a pulled pork slider.
It's possible to overdo the richness if you order carelessly. So we had the bone marrow, the pork belly and the tendon and tongue dishes on separate visits. All together in the same evening, it would feel like four sticks of butter washed down with a pint of heavy cream.
Then there's the jellyfish, which steals the spotlight on the table with its diaphanous glow. What's it like? Grab a handful of rubber bands, stuff them in your mouth and chew. Like that, only tastier.
On and on goes the adventure at Red Lotus, all while taking in the stylish space. There is also a lovely patio in the back that can be reserved for parties and a private VIP room that can be similarly booked.
Ngo wanted to go even more daring with the menu but decided to roll out the provocative, high-minded fusion of cuisines little by little. The menu will keep changing. It will be Chinese, Vietnamese and whatever else stirs in the minds back in the kitchen. Watch for dishes like geese feet – they're like those chicken feet you know and love, only bigger, better, bolder.
And watch for this likable, artistic young chef to influence many others in town.
If that is the case, Ngo's sensibilities might encourage other kitchens to reach higher, dare more and create the kind of chaos that leads to something new and exciting and essential.