Style Overshadows Food At This Local Version Of An Annapolis Favorite
Familiar names to many diners through their very popular Annapolis incarnations, Lemongrass, which serves Thai cuisine, and its sister restaurant, the Asian fusion Tsunami, opened up a few weeks ago in the old Holland Manufacturing Co. on Central Avenue, which also houses, among other businesses, a bowling alley and the relocated and expanded Piedigrotta bakery. This project, which seemed to materialize overnight in a patch of Baltimore that until now didn't have much in the way of commerce, is disorienting in the way unexpected things are, like a new lump felt on your cat's throat--how did that get there?
Say that you love Thai food but that you don't always love eating it in Thai restaurants, because you feel either like you're eating in an ethnographic exhibit or in intense drabness. And say that you've been imagining a new kind of Thai restaurant, where the food is still good but the ambiance has some boogie to it, some cool music, a bar where you can sit and have a drink. Then Lemongrass is your Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, much, much bigger and more aggressive than what you thought you'd wanted. Don't be frightened.
Lemongrass is very big, with a first floor that goes way back beyond the thumping front bar, where the only music is club music, even at lunch, back beyond the colossal figure that is either a Thai princess (says the staff) or a Buddha (says an old newspaper clipping) and might be in bad taste either way. The back area is imaginatively divided up into a few smaller dining areas--the central one with tall and long tables, for dining with large parties, or total strangers--with pale green walls, aubergine accents, and stark artwork. The whole design almost works, but something about the shade of veneer on the wooden tables isn't right, and the effect is diminished. Upstairs is a loft, which runs about half the length of the first floor and feels not much different than a nice sports bar. The outdoor space--a courtyard that connects Lemongrass with Tsunami and is staffed by each restaurant on alternating nights--when warm weather comes back, will be a potential super space.
The big bar is cool, like most bars carved out of industrial warehouse spaces are. It won't take you long to figure out if it's your kind of place. (Here's a joke: Two friends are exiting Lemongrass, and the first one says, "Did you get a look at that bar crowd?" The second one says, "I did. That sure was a lot of cleavage and highlights." And the first one responds, "Yeah, and how about the women.") No, but, really, the crowd we saw there was having a great time. Lemongrass promotes its happy hour specials and stays open until 2 a.m., with a late-night menu served until 1 a.m.
And the food. It's fine. It's fresh-looking, served up attractively on plates of midcentury colors. It's never surprising or better than you think it's going to be, and there is a general tendency away from intense heat--only two of 64 menu items are tagged with three heat-denoting chile peppers--but the kitchen is flexible about requested spice levels.
If Lemongrass ends up feeling less like a bona fide Thai restaurant than a Thai-themed club, say, if the exact same food it serves would somehow taste more authentic in a storefront restaurant, that's the trade-off. The best things we found there were simple stir-fries--the ka pow ($9.95 for chicken, beef, or pork; $14.95 for shrimp or seafood), which applies garlic, chile, and sweet basil leaves; and the pad pik khing ($9.95), which deploys a very tasty red curry paste onto meat and fresh string beans. The crispy duck ($13.95) is another good choice, with a prominent roasted flavor to the lightly battered duck.
Some dishes feel slightly inert--the lemon-grass noodle dish ($12.95) made a negligible impression, as though its ingredients had been rushed together. A basic grilled salmon with grilled vegetables ($15.95), although cooked very competently, seems too obviously designed for patrons that don't like Thai cuisine. An appetizer of curried fish cakes ($6.95) was a safe imitation of the classic tod man pla, with all fishiness obliterated. The larb gai, the familiar minced chicken appetizer, was a tame affair, too, with not enough lime or spice to arouse the tongue. Shrimp egg nets ($7.95) were the best example we saw of something a little different, that seemed to fit the tempo of the room--four small open-face omelets, topped with baby shrimp, peanuts, and sweet chile, to be wrapped up and eaten taco-style. Not a ton of flavor but pretty eating. The best appetizer choice was crispy string beans ($8.95), with minimalist batter and a good dash of fresh ground pepper.
I want to say that a vegan friend, not part of this reviewing team, is loving Lemongrass, especially the several tofu stir-fries. I want to say that I could learn to love Lemongrass, or at least come to terms with it.