Last week, I had the pleasure of being proven wrong. For the majority of my food-seeking life, I've had an aversion to Asian restaurants of the fusion variety. Deep Ellum's Lemongrass restaurant rocked my prejudice to the core.
Wanting to find a satisfying Asian meal without having to drive outside of the city limits, a quick Google search brought up a surprising result. Across the Internet were rave reviews for Lemongrass, a restaurant I had driven by several times but never thought to try. My past glimpses of their online menu may have had something to do with it.
Although owner Khoa Nguyen may fight me over this, traditional Vietnamese is the last thing I would ever label Lemongrass's menu. I've not a fan of the "f" word, and I found it interesting that neither is Mr. Nguyen. While the word "fusion" may not be as vulgar as the other f-bomb, it can be just as damning to Asian traditionalists in search of a legitimate native restaurant.
With its typical Dallas bistro prices and its fusion-like menu (more on this later), I had my doubts. It took a passionate endorsement from a friend with a well-trusted palate for me to finally take the plunge and pay the restaurant a visit.
My anxiety over finding parking in Deep Ellum or anywhere in downtown, for that matter, could have contributed to my hesitance, as well. However, Lemongrass alleviates any worries with ample parking spots in both a lot across the street and one behind the building. On the Friday afternoon of the boyfriend's and my visit, there was a relaxing bustle of diners in the elegant, earth-toned dining room. As we found a spot by the front windows, we were presented with a sushi and a lunch menu.
Perusing the menu was only formality, as I already knew what I'd come to try. My friend who had so raved about the restaurant highly recommended the steak cubes with garlic and fresh pasta. Since I also wanted to try at least one of the restaurant's more traditional Vietnamese dishes, I had my eye on the charcoal-broiled lemongrass pork with vermicelli. Coincidentally, when Nguyen returned to take our orders, he suggested I try those two exact dishes.
From the looks of Nguyen's stained waiter's white oxford shirt and his rapport with every single table in the restaurant, it's clear to see that the restaurant is a labor of love for its owner. Although I recognized him as Lemongrass's owner from the restaurant's website, when I posed the question to him, he replied modestly, "I'm only a waiter." His sense of humility could be because of the collaborative nature of the restaurant's different founders. Nguyen's family is formerly of East Wind, the uptown restaurant similar in concept to Lemongrass. After East Wind was sold, and after bouncing around from job to job, Nguyen decided to open Lemongrass in East Wind's original neighborhood, Deep Ellum. He brought his aunt, the former owner of East Wind, in to serve as a consultant and executive chef.
As loquaciously loving as Nguyen is in conversations about the restaurant, he is equally defensive when I, or anyone, bring up the dreaded fusion word. He adamantly professes that the correct label for his restaurant is "refined Vietnamese." In his eyes, fusion would suggest a lack of invention and a dependence on borrowing from other restaurants or cuisines. This confused me, and as I pointed out, I did just order a pasta dish in a Vietnamese restaurant.
Our discussion would have to wait until after my meal because our food soon arrived. Every lunch entrée is preceded with either a soup or a salad. Both the boyfriend and I opted for the soup-of-the day, a cream of corn. What came out sure wasn't anything I had ever seen in a Vietnamese restaurant before. While there is a Vietnamese soup with corn and crabmeat, the dish presented to us was a heavy and rich soup, with bits of corn and chicken mixed in. The taste was something I had never experienced and can be best, yet so insufficiently, described as cream gravy with the essence and sweetness of corn. It tastes so much better than that may sound. From my first sip of soup, I knew this restaurant's unique qualities extended beyond the superficial.
Although I struggled with letting the remainder of my soup be taken away, the sizes of our arriving entrees made the decision for me. For someone who initially winced at the restaurant's prices, I have to admit that it all made sense once I saw the entrees. Lemongrass's servings are insanely generous, and not just in size. The bowl of pork and vermicelli, or bun thit nuong, was abundant with fresh greens and herbs. The beautifully gleaming pieces of broiled pork were countless and piled high. The cubes of beef and pasta dish, at $11.95, now looked like a steal. The glorious platter looked as if it belonged in an overpriced steakhouse.
The flavors of both dishes matched their beauty. The brilliantly marinated pork was neither too fatty nor dry, the citrusy fragrance of lemongrass bursting with every bite. The beef sautéed with garlic paired with fresh pasta was an ingenious lesson of Vietnamese appreciation served with a twist. While the cubes of beef were fine and surprisingly not dry, the real story on this dish was the pasta. Fresh spinach pasta from Tommaso's is cooked in the simplest of fashions: boiled, then tossed with salt, pepper, a pat of butter and something I shall keep a secret. The finished product is divine.
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As full as the boyfriend and I were, we simply could...not...stop...eating. To make matters worse, (or better, if you consider that we had given up on our respective diets at this point) as soon as our empty bowls were taken away, they were replaced with plates of complimentary carrot cake.
I honestly can understand Nguyen's reluctance in having Lemongrass being labeled a fusion restaurant. The truth is, being labeled thusly does deter a specific group of Asians, namely those like myself. For so long, the term "Asian-fusion" has been associated with the bastardizing of a culture without so much of an understanding or true appreciation of the native cuisines at their most fundamental. Lemongrass's founders have both a deep appreciation and an understanding, and as long as they can balance the traditional with the revised as excellently as they have, maybe there isn't any reason for the restaurant to not wholly embrace the labeling. After all, why must Vietnamese food be confined to certain dishes and traditions? As long as the food is good, can it not be experimented with and elevated?
However it may be defined, whether it be fusion or refined, in its purest form, it's simply very good food.
Lemongrass 2711 Elm St. 214-745-0001