News & Reviews
|Tiny, terrific Thai / By GREG
COX, Restaurant Critic
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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