Summer in New York can be a difficult time for me — not because of the stifling heat or the endless streams of tourists who claim my city.
Rather, it’s the height of durian season — a time that I looked forward to when I was growing up in Southeast Asia. It’s when this “King of Fruit” (as it’s called in Asia) is at its peak — roadside stalls selling it are impossible to miss at this time in Singapore. In New York, however, the fruit can still be hard to come by.
What is durian? If you’d ever been within a 100 meters of one, you’d know. This fruit, unopened, looks like a spiky medieval weapon the size of a football — and it’s the shade of Incredible Hulk, no less. The more noticeable thing about it, however, is its scent, which is so pungent that it’s banned on public transportation in Singapore. I’ve seen the smell of durian described by some as akin to burnt tires or feces — lovers of the stuff, though, think that’s, well, c***.
In Singapore, bakeries and restaurants put durian in many things — cream puffs, dessert sandwiches, cakes and puddings. Because of its smell, I’ve only seen it in a U.S. restaurant once — at Jean-George Vongerichten’s Spice Market in New York City.
So when I spied durian puffs on the menu while out with the insatiable Gael Greene recently, I knew I had to order it …
I should have known that I would have some affinity with Lotus Blue, a fairly new Tribeca restaurant serving Yunnan cuisine. My Chinese name means “lotus,” after all — in fact, for many of my early years, that’s what my parents called me.
We had been curious to try the place for months — unfortunately, much of the meal was memorable in the wrong ways.
The cocktails (which we learned about in a drinks menu labeled “Hydrate” — a touch too cutesy) were OK overall, save for the Pu-Erh Kung Fu ($12), a warm combination of pu erh tea-infused rum, bacon vodka and rosemary that was so medicinal it bordered on undrinkable.
The Yunnan crisp fried mushrooms with basil and mint appetizer ($9) had been praised by some — what we got, however, was largely flavorless mushrooms swaddled in a thick layer of flavorless popcorn-style breading.
As a lover of spicy food and tofu, I was looking forward to the grilled tofu in banana leaf topped with mushroom and spicy bean paste ($18) since it was flagged on the menu with a little hot chili.
Once we unwrapped the leaf and dug in, however, the spice was nowhere to be tasted. And because of its wrapper, all of the char is on the leaf and not on the tofu, which was rather bland overall. (The crispy potato sticks, however, made for good filler.)
This dish was a delight from the first bite — it’s essentially bacon-like strips that have been braised to soft perfection in soy sauce and a bunch of spices. Traditional Chinese red-cooking at its best — then jazzed up with the sweetness of candied plums. I could eat this over rice every day.
How did the puffs taste? They came warm, with a promising smell that told me that the filling wasn’t as watered down for American palates as I had expected. And once I bit through the flaky crust and got to the molten creamy yellow meat at the center, my feelings about the meal before it washed away.
If you’re a fan of durian — this is good stuff.
Would I go back to Lotus Blue? The arrival of the puffs changed my answer entirely. Yes, in a heartbeat — if only for dessert.
Lotus Blue, 110 Reade Street, New York; 212.267.3777; http://www.lotusbluebar.com/lantung_nyc.htm