Lemongrass Thai Restaurant
    

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Tiny, terrific Thai / By GREG COX, Restaurant Critic
Published: Aug 29, 2003 / Triangle.com - Restaurant Review Published: Aug 29, 2003 / Triangle.com - Restaurant Review

Tiny, terrific Thai

By GREG COX, Restaurant Critic


RALEIGH--Midway through our meal at Lemongrass, a party of three -- young professionals, by the look of them -- is seated near us. Obviously, they're regulars. They know that the restaurant doesn't yet have its permit to sell beer and wine and have brought a bottle of white. Their arrival brings the total number of occupied tables to three in the 10-table dining room .

The sparse showing is apparently par for the course. "The usual packed house, I see," quips one of the threesome.

"Well, at least it's better than last time," a companion responds .


Sure enough, my visits confirm that assessment, as t hree occupied tables of regulars prove to be the high water mark.

This apparent contradiction -- a small following of dedicated fans and otherwise few customers -- is easily explained. For much of the time since Lemongrass opened in January, the little Thai restaurant's entrance has been obscured by renovations to the strip mall that houses it. It doesn't help that Charlie and Lisa Bhudasuwan opened the restaurant on the typical mom-and-pop startup budget and have been able to do little advertising.

It's no mystery why those who do discover the restaurant become regulars. I'd return any number of times for the seafood salad, a jumble of green-lip mussels, shrimp and squid over mixed greens in a classic Thai dressing that sparkles with chiles, lime and the restaurant's namesake lemongrass.

I wouldn't mind a steady fix of the fried calamari, either, with its crunchy parsley-flecked tempura batter and its garlicky red chile dipping sauce. And Lemongrass' rendition of tom ka gai, featuring chicken breast, mushrooms and crunchy bright red and green bell peppers in a galangal-spiked coconut soup, is also worthy of a drive.

I'd gladly order the summer rolls again. These soft rice flour wrappers are filled with rice noodles, cucumber and shrimp and served with a sauce that's zippier than the peanutty-sweet norm.

Of all the starters I sampled at Lemongrass, though, it's the green papaya salad whose siren call is strongest. I'd gladly drive across town for a reprise of this fiery symphony of julienne green papaya, carrot, sliced Roma tomatoes, Thai chiles, lime juice, fish sauce and palm sugar.

And if you throw in an entree of Thai barbecue chicken, which includes green papaya salad as an accompaniment, then I'd drive all the way across Wake County during rush hour. For breast meat that spurts juices when you stick your fork into crackling brown skin seasoned with garlic, cilantro and black pepper, I'll wager you'd do the same.

Salmon with basil sauce, the rosy fish moist and flaky under a golden sear and the spicy-sweet sauce liberally spangled with basil leaves, rates a return visit. So does a classic rendition of green curry, chockablock with chicken, crisp whole green beans and other vegetables in an exotically fragrant coconut brew. Like the few curries and other dishes marked as "hot and spicy" on the modest menu, both these dishes can be ordered from an honest 1-star hot to an honest-to-God 3-star incendiary.

I confess that I can usually take or leave pad thai, but I would gladly take the Lemongrass version, whose shrimp are plumper and whose sauce is less sweet than most .

I'd return to Lemongrass for duck in tamarind sauce, too, even though I've never tasted it. The dish wasn't available during my visits, and I'm still hankering to taste it.

By no means is the food the only attraction at Lemongrass. The jewel box of a dining room, with its blond hardwood floors, tropical plants and abstract paintings on mango-colored walls, is a quiet breath of fresh air.

And service is exceptionally accommodating. Your server probably will be Lisa Bhudasuwan, who embodies the concept of eager-to-please. One night, she asked my wife and me whether we had a coupon for half off the second entree. We hadn't even heard of a coupon and were clearly prepared to pay full fare, but she gave us the discount anyway. Then she told us to clip the coupon from the menu when we returned for another discounted meal.

Of course, we'll be back.

Reach Greg Cox at ggcox@bellsouth.net


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