Herbs and spice rule at Lemongrass

Restaurant Review


Lemongrass reminds me of L.A.'s Thai restaurants. They have intriguing names like Cafe Talesai and Cool Basil, contemporary decor, with-it young waiters and decent wines that actually go with the cuisine. The food isn't necessarily anything more interesting than the usual suspects (like satay and pad thai); but it's good and inexpensive and the places are hip.

You can tell Lemongrass is going to be just that kind of restaurant because it has such a great name. The name sounds cool, and it's appropriate because the flavors of Lemongrass' food -- like all Thai cooking -- rely much more on fresh herbs than dried spices (except for chiles, of course).

Lemongrass is the aromatic herb used frequently in Asian cuisines, particularly Thai and Vietnamese. Although the scent is lemony, it gives a subtly different flavor to dishes than lemon juice does.

Lemongrass the restaurant, housed in an attractive old building painted lemony yellow, has been a hit pretty much since it opened its doors. No reservations are taken, and by 7 p.m. or so the dining room is usually full. Then the hostess will send you next door to the chic Metropolitan to wait. It has the same owners, but drinks at Metropolitan's bar may end up costing you more than your dinner will.

In Lemongrass' minimalist dining room, hardwood floors gleam. An ancient Thai proverb, which our waiter thought had something to do with beautiful women and spicy food, is written decoratively on one lemon-with-a-touch-of-lime wall. Banquettes line the sides of the room, and there is more seating on both sides of the long counter down the middle. The draped fabric near the ceiling in the same lemony color was put up after complaints about noise. It seems to have helped. Artsy young waiters, wearing torn blue jeans, deliver good, fast service; and early one recent Sunday evening, the kitchen was unbelievably quick as well.

Lemongrass the aromatic herb is a star player in a number of the restaurant's dishes -- no surprise there -- but nowhere more successfully than the signature hot and sour soup. The citrusy, spicy broth is lighter than its thickened Chinese counterpart. It overflows with a large shrimp, two sweet mussels on the half shell, one fat, ivory scallop, a couple of pieces of squid, mushrooms, cherry tomatoes and fresh Thai basil, which has almost a clove-like flavor. Watch out for the decorative but dangerous whole red peppers.

The kitchen makes use of local seafood in dishes like Crispy Whole Rockfish and crab fried rice. Lettuce wraps can be had with pieces of fresh white grouper, mild and sweet, which you wrap with mint and cashews and a slathering of pungent chili-mint sauce.

Soft crabs are available deep-fried with one of two toppings. Their crunchy-soft texture goes particularly well with Lemongrass' light sauce of garlic, Thai basil and chili. It's a picture-perfect example of the spicy, sweet, sour, salty combinations that are common in Thai cooking.

Dishes marked on the menu with a small hot pepper are spicy, without any differentiation between spicy and help, my hair is on fire. The green curry is medium hot, but the fire dies quickly, leaving the lingering flavors of coconut, coriander and basil. Pieces of white meat chicken, eggplant slices and bamboo shoots float decoratively in the sauce.

Balance it with a simple shrimp and asparagus dish, with a light sauce that hints of garlic. The ratio of shrimp to asparagus is off (it could use more asparagus), but it still tastes like spring.

Lemongrass offers an array of enticing spicy hot-and-cold salads like Tiger Crying (beef), roast duck, and a green papaya with roasted peanuts and green beans. For a starter that's tamer but quite enticing, try the pretty little steamed dumplings stuffed with ground pork, shrimp, crabmeat and water chestnuts, with a sweet and pungent sauce for dipping.

A fan favorite is Lemongrass' Crispy String Beans, which I was told people often eat as a munchy with their drinks. They are deep-fried in a light batter; and the crispiness of the name comes not just from their exterior, but from the perfectly cooked fresh string beans themselves. Their garlic sauce is surprisingly sweet, which wasn't the negative it might have been except that we ended up with so many sweet dishes. Don't blame us; when a menu describes a dish as having a light garlic sauce, dessert-sweet isn't something that leaps to mind.

As for desserts, while fried banana with ice cream was on the menu, only sticky rice with mango was available that night. That was fine with me. This was one of the best versions of the Thai classic I've had: perfectly cooked sweet rice drizzled with sweetened coconut milk and juicy slices of just-ripe fruit.

I wouldn't put Lemongrass in the worth-a-trip-to-Annapolis category if you live in Baltimore, but it's well worth stopping in if you're there for some other reason. It's a fun little restaurant with good Thai food and lots of style. It won't hurt your pocketbook either.



FOOD *** (3 stars)

SERVICE *** (3 stars)

ATMOSPHERE *** (3 stars)

Address: 167 West St., Annapolis

Hours: Open Monday through Saturday for lunch; every night for dinner

Prices: $4.50-$6.95, entrees: $9.95-$15.95

Call: 410-280-0086


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