The Orient Distress
The crowd that gathers at Opium is attractive and mostly dressed in black. Many talk on cell phones. Handsome bartenders and waiters also are clothed in black, while comely barmaids pretty much wear the same outfit that Gwen Verdon or Shirley MacLaine (take your pick) wore in My Sweet Charity. Hostesses and waitresses are attired in more individualized costumes, ones that resemble Pamela Anderson's ensembles on V.I.P. (Not that I've ever seen the show.) Can't say I was the worst-looking person in the room, but I'm pretty sure I was wearing the least costly shoes.
The décor is striking, sexy, inventive, and fun: the Asian panache of Bambú mixed with a bit of Tantra erotic and more than a bit of Red Square exotic; it's Shanghai decadence meets SoBe trendiness. There are industrial steel columns and cold blue lights set in metallic beams that run across a slanted bamboo ceiling. And distressed walls, velvet drapes, bamboo trees, Eastern artifacts, and a tin tunnel with a big fan at the end of it for those who feel the need to breathe relatively fresh air. Also red lights, track lights, spotlights, projected lights, hanging Oriental lamps, countless candles, and modern gooseneck light fixtures spiraling outward from one of the walls. Colored bulbs glow from under the bar too, but as I held a candle up to the menu to read it, it occurred to me that perhaps no restaurant has ever paid as high an electric bill for so little illumination. Great room, though.
We were told to come at opening time, eight o'clock sharp, to get a table. We did and were taken to the worst seats in the house, the last of a series of small round tables that line up behind the bar. Right next to us a crew of bartenders were tossing boxes and breaking glasses and throwing stuff back and forth to set up for the evening. One worker stored ice buckets under our seat without even excusing himself. Two of us sat on backless stools, the other on a backless cushioned bench. We asked if we could move, citing not the din and distraction but the fact that a woman at the table was experiencing back pain and needed to lean back. Although every single one of the restaurant's other 100-plus seats was empty at the time, we were told that switching tables would be impossible. You'd think they'd at least have offered a chair; clearly we weren't on the VIP list for respectful treatment. It's this sort of attitude that would cause many to refer to the snooty staff here as Eurotrash. I don't like that term, however. It gives garbage a bad name.
We ordered three appetizers to start. Vietnamese beef salad arrived first, with a seaweed salad that wasn't ours. The seaweed was taken back; the tender morsels of quickly seared, ginger-flecked beef remained. Fresh watercress was a perfectly peppery partner to the meat, while toasted peanuts provided crunch. Five minutes later the spring roll, or cha roll, was brought to the table, cut into four clean pieces of soft white rice paper wrapped around poached shrimp, thin rice noodles, and greens; jalapeño-spiked vinegar sat in one side dish, a smooth mustardy peanut sauce in the other. After ten more minutes and after the other appetizer plates had been cleared, deep-fried collarbone of yellowtail arrived. It tasted all right but wasn't worth the wait, containing as it did only the same amount of fish as turkey on a wishbone. On a different occasion, five steamed pork dumplings (gyoza) with teriyaki sauce were fresh and nicely executed, though the menu said they'd be pan fried and served with more than one dip. Beef negamaki was so-so, eight petite and slightly overcooked pieces of teriyaki beef wrapped around scallions.
There are two pages of sushi and sashimi to choose from, the quality of which were very good. A dynasty futomaki roll filled with tuna hamachi, masago, and mango was one of our favorites; a green dragon roll of shrimp tempura with avocado and asparagus also was a big hit. Presentations were pretty and indeed all of the food here is attractively plated in a bright, simple Oriental manner, the plates themselves of varying shapes, sizes, and colors.
Nonsushi entrées span Pan-Asian territory, and the trio we ordered was superb. Whole snapper was crisply crusted with moist flakes inside, sautéed shiitakes in a robust chili sauce adding just the right piquancy to the fish and providing flavor for the side of sticky rice. A hollowed-out pineapple came filled with roasted chunks of that fruit tossed with morsels of chicken breast, red peppers, and cashews in a spicy and delectable Thai red curry sauce. Szechuan peppercorn-crusted filet possessed a thick, upscale steak house sumptuousness: sharply seared on the outside, red and juicy within. Accompanying wasabi mashed potatoes were missing the wasabi, but were tasty nonetheless, as were grilled asparagus spears. Pad thai, lobster stir-fry with green curry, and a ginger orange-glazed duck breast are the three main courses we didn't try. Forbidden fugo blowfish also is available, for $300. The other dishes are pricey but not unreasonably so.
On both visits to Opium I was most looking forward to the dessert of chilled lychee in ice box with almond milk pudding. God, it sounded good, but they didn't have it either time. Caramelized banana in coconut milk was too sweet and one dimensional to stop the visions of litchis from dancing in my head, but crunchy slices of spiced apple tempura with red-bean ice cream did the trick.
If I was more galled than enthralled with my experience at Opium, it's because the staff's haughtiness wasn't even backed by talent. I mean, it's easier to tolerate an arrogant waiter if he's performing his work in a consummately professional way, but service here was laughably haphazard. Waiters roamed the room with plates, looking for people who appeared to be waiting for them. And our bus person's idea of cleaning the table after dinner was to swipe the crumbs onto the floor with his hand. Still, if you make reservations far enough in advance, request a regular table, and feel comfortable with this crowd, there's a chance you'll enjoy Opium quite a bit.
The room and food, as I've said, are just fine, and there's definitely a lively energy flowing through the space. If it should turn out you aren't treated like an A lister, after dinner you can enter the adjacent Amnesia and forget the whole thing.
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