Regular visitors to downtown Flagstaff may have noticed a change on North San Francisco Street in early November. In the old Flagstaff Post Office, built in 1917, which has sat empty for the past three years since Seasoned Kitchen supply store moved, lights and people could suddenly be seen through the large glass windows. Brought to you by the people of the Hotel Monte Vista, the Lotus Lounge celebrated its grand opening on December 13 following a month-long trial run.
“As soon as a concept was nailed down the process was expedited because there was so much that had to be done in this building in terms of setting up the kitchen, making it an actual functional restaurant,” explains marketing director Genie Kuester.
Now, fully open just in time for the hotel’s 90th anniversary, Lotus Lounge is offering selections of Asian cuisine fit for casual dining, date night and everything in between.
“It’s been one of the smoothest restaurant openings I’ve been a part of,” says sushi chef Ray Morrissey. “We have a lot of hardworking people so that made it easy.”
The bar welcomes diners as they first walk in the restaurant with stools lining it in the center of the room and more seating next to the open kitchen on the north end. Upstairs, several tables are set up along the walls and balcony overlooking the downstairs area, but the more popular tables are next to the windows and provide a view of busy San Francisco Street. Warm lighting creates a relaxed ambience that invites patrons to sit down and stay a while as they sample small plates.
“I’ve designed it to be izakaya, small plates, so you can really get a composed meal and my whole goal is for my servers and my patrons to kind of develop their own omakase, their own chef’s tasting menu,” says Stewart Weinstein, executive chef.
Weinstein graduated from Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., honing his culinary skills with instruction from teachers passionate about food and even working alongside Food Network chefs Sara Moulton and John Oliver. He credits his interest in cooking to his mother, who “could burn a pot of water.” Sick of eating out all the time, he took up the cooking duties in his household when he was a teenager and the rest is history.
“I was lucky that [cooking] kind of found me when I was young and gave me a vision and a focus,” he says. “I was goal-oriented in high school because I knew this was the path I wanted to go on.”
He’s worked with food professionally for almost two decades now and speaks with a clear passion for what he does.
“I think that part of artistry and a part of beauty needs to be incorporated into anything that we are going to consume, whether it’s a cocktail or any food item,” Weinstein says. “You kind of eat with your eyes, so if something’s not visually appealing, I think it kind of makes you hesitant to want to pick up your fork, pick up your chopstick.”
Even some of the simpler dishes are plated with care and intention. The hamachi serrano features generous slices of raw hamachi with strawberries, serrano pepper, cilantro and a basil-infused yuzu sauce on top.
The hamachi, Japanese amberjack, has a high fat content which contributes to a smooth, butter-like texture that melts in the mouth while each of the individual flavors in the dish stand out on their own and balance each other. The brightness of the cilantro is mellowed by the strawberry’s sweetness and then the pepper gives each piece a hint of heat before the house-made yuzu sauce brings it all together.
The chefs are quick to point out that everything is made in-house, ensuring quality food on which they can put their seal of approval.
“When you enjoy what you do, that extra work is not even a big deal,” Morrissey says. “We take a lot of pride in the food that we put out so being able to know that, from start to finish, every single thing that goes on the dish we made, and we made well, it’s a really good feeling.”
Despite Flagstaff being almost 7,000 feet above sea level, the fish the restaurant receives is of the highest quality. Weinstein had previously worked at several other sushi restaurants which partnered with the Honolulu Fish Company, a Hawaii-based company that prides itself on freshness and quality; roughly 10 percent of fish caught are accepted by their scrutinous inspectors following each day’s catch. When Weinstein came on board the Lotus Lounge team, he reached out to the company to establish a business relationship.
“My dad kind of said it best,” he explains. “He’s a doctor, so he said as a doctor, you want to surround yourself with other qualified, smart individuals who have the same drive that you do, and it’s very similar in the chef world; I want to surround myself with purveyors who have the same mindset that freshness is key.”
The fish from Honolulu Fish Company is flash frozen after being caught then flown to the mainland and arrives in Flagstaff around eight hours after it leaves the water. Each day there are different types of fish for Weinstein to choose from, preventing the menu from getting stagnant.
“When we do our line-ups every day Stew kind of gives the servers the lowdown on what we have, and he’s just super pumped about it and it makes the servers super pumped at selling them,” Kuester says.
Many of the dishes on the menu allow the fish to stand on its own rather than cover its light flavor with excessive ingredients like more American-style sushi restaurants may. Some of the options include nigiri, slices of raw fish over rice; uramaki, which is a roll with rice on the outside; futomaki, a roll with rice on the inside and nori on the outside; sashimi, raw fish served with pickled ginger and wasabi; and their special house rolls.
“We just really want to showcase the top-quality ingredients that we’re getting,” says Morrissey.
Oysters ordered from Island Creek Oysters in Massachusetts are another delicacy the restaurant is proud to carry. Weinstein gets creative here with a molecular gastronomy technique, cooking yuzu and agar-agar together in oil which solidifies into pearls, creating a faux caviar that gives a burst of citrus flavor to complement the slightly salty oysters.
The cocktails are likewise carefully crafted. Jeremy Meyer, the restaurant’s general manager, brings his years of experience as a bar manager at Criollo and part-owner of Root Public House to create unique drinks that showcase some of the flavors of Asia.
Japanese liquors are incorporated into cocktails to give a twist on well-known drinks like the Lotus Mary, Meyer’s take on a Bloody Mary with a house-made mix, and rice spirits sake and shōchū in place of vodka.
The Fresh Fashions cocktail plays off the classic Old Fashioned by mixing together Akashi Japanese whiskey, Ancho Reyes liqueur, citrus oil and mole bitters which give the drink a chocolaty, mildly spicy taste on the back end without overpowering the rest of the ingredients. An ice sphere and orange peel finish the drink off.
“Jeremy did a lot of mixology stuff so you probably couldn’t get this anywhere else in Flag,” Kuester says. “We juice all of our own juice and infuse all of our own stuff.”
Looking forward, Weinstein plans to introduce a late-night menu with special small plates and more drink options. Sake and wine pairings are also in the works.
“I put a lot of pressure on my staff and it’s great because they’re able to handle it,” Weinstein says. “I’m not the only one that can be creative. There’s so much talent in my guys and my gals back here, that I lean on them a lot for their ideas and their creativity. I want them to help this restaurant grow as much as I can.”
The Lotus Lounge is open Monday-Thursday from 5-9 p.m., Friday from 5-10 p.m., Saturday from 3-10 p.m. and Sunday from 3-9 p.m. at 106 N. San Francisco St. Find them on Facebook to check out the full menu and for more information.