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Restaurant Review: Lemon Grass

January 27, 2010

A little over two years ago Chef Eddie Premwhattana purchased Lemon Grass, a longtime popular Thai restaurant that for years won most every award for Thai food in Cleveland.  The problem was that lately more Thai eateries have opened up and Lemon Grass had begun to get a little long in the tooth.  Premwhattana was faced with the challenge of revitalizing a veteran restaurant while holding on to a loyal, if thinning customer base.  The expanded menu helps with this issue, yet presents problems of its own.  It’s just too big.  There’s nothing wrong with paring down some of the older dishes to breathe some needed new air into the establishment.  Some old patrons will bristle, but will move on to new favorites.

With that said, there is much to like about Lemon Grass.  The kitchen does have some chops, and there are ample options for the vegetarian in group.  So how does Lemon Grass version 2.0 stack up?

Review

For the sake of applying a “numerical” valuation towards elements during the dinner, we have chosen to rank each segment from 1-5 “tickets at the pass,” 5 being the most favorable value.

Bar

Chef Gusteau says: I believe that once again Anton was waiting at the bar for me while consuming a whiskey or two.  Keep in mind; I am not late for dinner, just not as early as Anton!  I passed on preliminary drinks and we prepared for dinner.  Based on the ambience and decor, I was very frightened of the food I was about to encounter.  Anton assured me that the food would be good, as he had frequented this restaurant many times.  That fact alone scared me further.

The wine selections were a bit scarce by the glass, although for the menu here, beer is the best choice.  It is great for cleansing the palate and cooling down any particularly spicy bites of food.

Monsieur Anton says: Yeah, we get it.  Anton drinks a lot. Trust me if you had to wait for Gusteau as long as I usually have to, you’d drink too.  The wine list was rather pedestrian, but at least it was fairly priced.  The beer selection was adequate with the usual suspects along with some Asian beers that fit the cuisine, but light on micro brews not named Great Lakes.  A reasonable Scotch selection redeemed the bar, earning the tickets awarded by Gusteau.

Tickets at the pass – 4

Appetizers

Chef Gusteau: I decided to go with a traditional Lemon Grass soup as my appetizer.  Had to be a safe choice, right?  The broth was quite tasty and seasoned skillfully.  The right balance of spicy, citrus and hearty flavors is the true test of this kind of soup.  My only concern….the damn shrimp.  Ok, I admit I am very particular about this.  The three shrimp that came in the soup still had the tail shell on.  The shell adds some flavor while cooking in the broth and it looks nice for presentation.  But are you telling me as customers you like to reach into your soup, pull the tail off, and then put the shrimp back into the soup?  Come on…first rule in cooking, if a guest can’t eat it, get it off the plate.  That said, it was a tasty soup…especially if you like crunching on shrimp shells.

Monsieur Anton: You know, I never thought about the tails on the shrimp until Gusteau had a conniption over it.  It seems to be the norm in most restaurants, but you know what, he’s right.  Otherwise the soup traditionally known as Tom Yum Goong was quite satisfying, with a fine balance of sour, spicy and savory.

Tickets at the pass – 3.5

Chef Gusteau: Shrimp in a Blanket sounds like a fun take on pigs in a blanket.  Same idea.  They took a big piece of shrimp, wrapped it in a large spring roll wrapper, and fried it up.  The key to this dish is quality shrimp, and a great dipping sauce.  Typically with anything fried in this manner, the dipping sauce is really all you taste.  The sauce in question tasted like a combination of sesame oil and a sweet Thai chili sauce, with a touch of ginger and rice wine vinegar.  Ask Anton, I love reverse engineering a chef’s secret sauce…drives a lot of chefs crazy…but not the good ones.  A fun appetizer to enjoy and share…although Anton ate most of them…saving the one with the large shell on the tail for me.  Bastard.

Monsieur Anton: It seems the good chef has an obsession with shrimp tails.  Well, if you hadn’t spent so much time analyzing the sauce, you would have had more time to actually enjoy it.  This dish is elegant in its simplicity, and yes, the sauce was the star of the dish, sweet with a hint of heat. Once again, as in the soup there was balance in the flavors.  One thing I appreciate about good Asian cooking is that you get the yin and yang; in this case of the sweet and the hot.

Tickets at the pass – 4

Dinner Entrees

Chef Gusteau: When I saw the entrée of “Dancing Squid,” I couldn’t help but try it.  I imagined perfectly sautéed calamari rings and tentacles, in a light spicy sauce.  Surprisingly enough that is what came to the table.  I feared the squid would be overcooked and chewy.  This was not the case.  Everything was perfectly cooked, presented nicely, and tasted quite good.  When Anton wasn’t looking, I snuck one of the larger Thai hot peppers under the piece of squid I put on his plate.  Shrimp tail right back at you Anton!

Monsieur Anton: The joke’s on you Gusteau.  I liked the chili pepper, and I liked this dish.  The kitchen at Lemon Grass does not get bogged down reinventing the wheel.  They just practice good technique with quality ingredients, and that is the core of Asian cuisine.

Tickets at the pass – 4

Chef Gusteau: Of course we had to order the Pad Thai, probably the most common benchmark Thai restaurants are judged by.  This isn’t a great way to truly measure a Thai restaurant in that only a truly great restaurant could take a simple tasting dish and make it extraordinary.  Which is what Lemon Grass certainly didn’t do.  The dish was simple, mildly satisfying, but cooked properly.  Just uninspiring as a dish.  I let Anton eat all of it save for the one forkful I tried as a taste.

Monsieur Anton: Sometimes when a chef makes a dish that they have made thousands of times they bore of it and don’t pay attention to the details.  I fear that is what happened with the Pad Thai.  Here was the first real misstep of the kitchen.  Lemon Grass’ signature Pad Thai comes with shrimp and chicken.  While the shrimp was fine (even with the tails on it), the chicken was dry.  The rice noodles themselves were well-flavored by the fish sauce, but there was a bit too much oil used in the stir fry process.

Tickets at the pass – 3

Chef Gusteau: You all know me by now…if there is duck on the menu, I will be ordering it!  Thankfully, the Chili Duck was the winner of the evening, and exceeded my expectations.  I grew up eating duck prepared in a Chinese kitchen, which is very similar to the Thai preparation.  The major difference would be that in Thai preparations, the sauce is just as important as the duck.  In this case, the sauce in question was a cream based spicy and savory concoction that complimented the duck quite well.  It tended to be a bit heavy on the palate after a while, but considering the generous portion provided, I wasn’t about to complain.  A great dish to enjoy and not share, although Anton wasn’t going to let me get away with that.

Monsieur Anton: Getting a little possessive are we?  Duck can be tricky.  It’s not always easy to achieve the desired crispy skin without drying out the delicious meat.  I’m happy to say “mission accomplished.”  As good as the duck itself was, it was becoming apparent to me that sauces rule the roost at Lemon Grass and the tangy accompaniment to the duck passed with flying colors.

Tickets at the pass – 4.5

Chef Gusteau: I wasn’t sure what craziness Anton ordered for this last dish. Just mispronouncing the Pla Rad Pik gave you an indication of what I thought of this when it arrived at the table.  It was a fried fish filet (the whole fish option wasn’t available on this evening) , with a mixture of vegetables, hot peppers, and who knows, maybe even more shrimp shells for my benefit.  I understand that the impressive component should have been the fried fish, but that didn’t save the dish.  It was ok, and Anton ate that as well.  I went back to eating the duck.

Monsieur Anton: This was not the Plad Rad Pik I remembered from long ago visits.  The fish was just a run of the mill fried filet buried in a thick black gingery sauce that just overwhelmed any flavor the fish had.  The flavor of the sauce was not bad, playing off the recurring theme of sweet and spicy, this time with a bit too much salt, but it was just overkill.  The sauce was thick; almost a glaze.  This dish would have been better off with a high quality fish, and scaling back the sauce a notch or two.

Tickets at the pass – 3.5

Atmosphere and Service

Chef Gusteau: Food aside, the ambiance and decor of the restaurant were acceptable.  The tables and restrooms were clean.  The decor was authentic Thai yet unobtrusive.  The service was quite slow, perhaps owing to the fact we came on a Monday night (the “B” team typically will work Monday nights at restaurants, while the “A” team works Thursday through Saturday).

Monsieur Anton: The restaurant is broken up into two rooms.  The large “sun room” was bright and airy with some modern touches.  The tiled floor could have signaled acoustic problems, but the high ceiling muted any extraneous noise.  Another more elegant, carpeted room that was not being used on this evening may have been the choice for a quiet relaxing meal.  There is a large patio off the sun room for warmer times of the year.  The service was just fine.  The server got us out in time for our movie, but did nothing to really enhance the experience like making recommendations or truly engaging his dinner guests.

Tickets at the pass – 3.5

Final Review

Chef Gusteau: Keep in mind, not one menu item was priced over $16.95.  This is not an expensive place to have a nice quiet dinner.  The food was acceptable, properly cooked and at times, rather tasty.  The portion sizes were very generous.  Anton was brave in taking me here, and I don’t regret it.  I can’t imagine going back anytime soon, though.  If my Chinese Grandfather were still alive, though, he’d beat me for letting this place off so easy!

Monsieur Anton: Not all restaurants have to be haute cuisine, and that is where Lemon Grass comes in.  Where once Lemon Grass was a critical darling, introducing Thai food to a city that was not extensively exposed to it, it has now become a reliable old friend.  If you’re looking for a reasonable place to go before a movie at the Cedar-Lee Theater, or satisfying carry out on the way home, you could do far worse than Lemon Grass.

Final tickets at the pass – 3.75

Lemon Grass

2179 Lee Road
Cleveland, OH 44118-2907
(216) 321-0210

http://www.lemongrasscleveland.com/

Pre-meal drinks:

Tsing Tao beer– $4.50

Appetizers:

Lemon Grass Soup – $3.50; Spicy clear broth, cilantro, mushrooms, shrimp

Shrimp in a Blanket -$6.95; Whole shrimp in a fried spring roll with Thai dipping sauce

Entrees:

Dancing Squid – $12.95, Sautéed squid with hot peppers, mushrooms, onions in chili sauce

Pad Thai – $9.75, Rice noodles with chicken, peanuts and onions

Chili Duck – $16.95, Roasted duck, pineapple, tomato, mushrooms and cashews in a chili ginger sauce

Pla Rad Pik – $14.95; Whole fried fish with hot chili and basil

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 28, 2010 7:37 am

    What’s up with changing the setting so I can’t read your blog in Google Reader any more? I really dislike having to click through to the actual blog 🙂

  2. January 28, 2010 9:47 am

    As far as I can see, nothing has changed on this end. There have been no settings changed, but I’ll continue to look into it. I’v sent an email to our hosting service’s support. Hopefully we’ll get to to the bottom of this soon.

    Anton

  3. January 28, 2010 10:15 am

    Not a huge deal. I don’t know how it’s controlled in Word Press, but in Blogger there is a setting that makes it display either the full feed or a short feed that makes you click through to see the whole post. I assumed you changed it to drive more traffic to the site.

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