Lemongrass Loves its Regular Customers. Newcomers Get Short Shrift.
I can only gather and repeat admonitions based upon my own experiences at a particular restaurant. For that reason, I will never return to Lemongrass unless work demands a revisit.
This statement should not, however, be read as a condemnation of the place. It's just clear from a few meals that some guests are often privy to more fluid service and an extra dose of care than others. If you happen to have been a regular of the late East Wind, predecessor and, in many ways, scion to Lemongrass, treatment can be almost intimate, with waitstaff coddling and cooing and ushering you through the listings. Meanwhile, the final 20-plus minutes of my second visit—a leisurely two-and-a-half-hour two-course dinner that I really needed to hurry through—was spent waiting for the server to run my card. He used that stretch to fawn over the next table and rest at the front desk while we stared at an empty field of white cloth wondering if we'd ever make it home. Another two-top came and went, pausing to chat with the folks at that next table (and then with the waiter and manager) during our extended meal. The same waiter hustled their stuff out. We had to ask a few times for drink refills before half of the order reluctantly arrived.
It kind of felt like we'd bought a third-class berth on the Titanic and stumbled into the second-class cafeteria.
Perhaps one's appreciation of the new Deep Ellum space deepens the more one learns how to order correctly from the restaurant's rather inclusive menu. To start off my first visit, I opted for an asparagus soup with crab meat because, well, it looked interesting. I ended up with a bowl of floury roux in which someone had buried a few stems of canned vegetable—and if that's not the case, I congratulate the kitchen for scrounging pale, stringy, thoroughly soaked and mushy examples of the prized spear. An entrée order of spicy pork bound nice, tender meat with sorry, sagging vegetables apparently poured from a bag marked Birds Eye straight into the pan. They also found a way to saturate fried shrimp (known as shrimp beignets) with oil, yet turn them almost completely flat in terms of flavor.
Other guests scattered around the room seemed happy enough. Of course, former regulars of East Wind know what to order. As for the rest of us schlubs, Lemongrass is hit or miss.
Ah, but the hits can be impressive. One could legitimately get away with labeling their pork spring rolls brilliant. They're packed with cilantro and fresh greens that lend a bright, minty-grassy sheen to each bite, punctured by reeking ash and pungent spice as the flavor of grilled meat begins to course through the greens then pulls back, leaving a fresh yet hearty impression behind. They serve the rolls with peanut sauce, but why douse something so intriguing? Crepes wrapping gentle shellfish come with piles of lettuce and herbs for dressing purposes. Once again, though, it borders on criminal to disrupt an already clever arrangement, natural sweetness concealing (just for a moment) a modest surge of heat which seems to float in the midst of each bite.
Lemongrass shows extraordinary potential at times. Some of their menu items, indeed, hang on the same precipice as Kent Rathbun's lobster shooters or Dean Fearing's tortilla soup: not entirely original ideas, but in the right time and place capable of reaching iconic status...if pushed just a little bit further.
Case in point, the Deep Ellum restaurant's Peking duck quesadillas, the essence of fusion in that it shows sensitivity to both China's classic and typical Tex-Mex tastes. Rich, gamy meat and shreds of fatty skin oozing hoisin sauce ride alongside the familiar herbal notes of cilantro spiked with true Texas heat, and you end up sensing sweet, earthen, sharp and spicy elements in an oddly disjointed balance. It's not that the flavors layer in one bite, but that they dominate in random order—cacophony leading to an overall impression of harmony. And because tradition dictates rolling Peking duck in thin pancakes, the tortilla presentation makes perfect sense. Well, except that a layer of cheese throws the appetizer completely off kilter.
As Jason Jones asked on The Daily Show, "Why is cheese delicious on Italian food [or Tex-Mex, for that matter], but when you melt it on Chinese food, it's disgusting?"
Interesting question, but there's another problem here: the very phrase "Peking duck."
The celebrated ancient dish results from a labor-intensive process involving fattening duck for more than two months before slaughter, pumping air into the carcass to separate the skin, then hanging the bloated beast while glazing for a full day. Roasting turns the skin into densely flavored shellac. What Lemongrass calls Peking duck is, however, just regular old duck with soft, fatty skin pulled off and scattered separately.
Too many restaurants these days misuse time-honored labels, assuming guests don't give a damn. Lemongrass plunges into the pan-Asian-sometimes-Tex-Mex fusion field unabashed, trading on the Vietnamese flavors people remember from East Wind, yet blaring a neon green sushi sign out toward Elm Street, fodder for the "ooh, I love sushi" crowd. Their spider rolls, however, aren't worth the effort—unless you consider the soft shell creation a mere vehicle for transmitting ponzu to the palate. The kitchen's curry blends fried rice and overly sweet coconut milk, along with the usual garam masala suspects, into a gritty and unbalanced broth that manages to hide a layer of fiery spice so well, it doesn't fully reveal itself until the ride home.
By then you're a little annoyed with the experience, if you're not an East Dallas/downtown area local, of course. Oh—a private note to my last server: I know you are supposed to keep the original receipt, but as you rushed off before I could ask for a copy (and I really didn't care to wait another 20 minutes), I held onto the thing.
Lemongrass suffers for its lineage. Otherwise, it's a respite from the dreary environs of a faded part of town. Next door, the vacant halls of the Green Room stand as a reminder of Deep Ellum's once-bustling dining crowd. Within sight of Lemongrass' window seating, at least three empty buildings wait for the next recovery. The new restaurant itself, however, is clean and linear with an inviting back patio and air of sophistication.
It promises much, but delivers on only a part of this. And even then, it chooses just who will receive the better part of this promise.
Lemongrass 2711 Elm St., 214-745-0001. Open 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-11 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday. $$$
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