Time for Thai


(Lemongrass, Thai Taste, Thai Café, Thai-Siam, Voice-Tribune, June 28, 2006)

I’ve never quite understood why lemongrass isn’t more widely popular in Western cuisines. A key ingredient in Southeast Asian cookery, this fragrant herb imparts a lovely lemony perfume with a mellow and tangy complexity that mere lemon juice can’t match.

Bold, bright and crisp flavors like lemongrass inform the delicious dishes of Vietnam and Thailand, in the tropical region that we once called “Indo-China” to signal its location between India and China. It’s no coincidence that the fare of this part of the world derives its character from both of its larger neighbors, melding the light, colorful stir-fries and rice and noodle dishes of East Asia with the spicy and aromatic flavors of South Asia.

The combination rarely fails to delight, and I’m never loath to head out to any of the region’s Vietnamese or Thai eateries when I need a culinary mood-lifter. And now we’ve got one more appetizing option with the arrival of a new branch of Lemongrass Café in the heart of St. Matthews.

Lemongrass, which takes its name from the tasty Southeast Asian herb, got its start just three years ago in the Highlands (1019 Bardstown Road, 238-3981) and has quickly expanded into a local mini-chain, with properties in Middletown (11606 Shelbyville Road, 244-7110) and now on Fairfax Avenue in St. Matthews. (The Middletown branch replaced a short-lived entry off Westport Road.)

The newest location may be the most stylish of the group. It’s a good-size room in a short shopping strip, walls painted a rich, dark brick red and discreetly decorated with Asian art that ranges from conical straw rice-pickers’ hats to Chinese paintings and Southeast Asian village scenes. A shoulder-high divider breaks the room into intimate sections, with undraped wood-look tables and sturdy, comfortable wooden side chairs. Attractive yellow light fixtures and track lights are intelligently situated to illuminate individual tables while maintaining an overall light level that’s romantically dim.

Lemongrass bills itself as “Vietnamese, Thai and Chinese,” and the owners, I believe, are Vietnamese. The Chinese portion of the menu is de-emphasized a bit at the new spot, and that’s fine with me. I like Chinese, but we’ve got about 10 Chinese restaurants in this town for every Vietnamese or Thai eatery, and a city just can’t have too much Southeast Asian. The menu includes about 50 Vietnamese dishes and maybe 20 Thai, with the Chinese options pretty much limited to a few soups, appetizers and lunch specials.

The Vietnamese section is easy to understand even if you’re new to the cuisine, divided by type of dish (house specialties, jasmine rice plates, noodles and noodle rice soups, vermicelli bowls, hot pot, clay pot and grill, and vegetarian dishes), with clear English descriptions of each dish. Pricing is affordable, from $5.75 (for several vegetarian main dishes) to $29.95 (for a seafood “hot pot” for two), with almost everything under $10. On the Thai side of the menu, main dishes are divided into curries, seafood dishes and other entrees, from $6.95 (for two Khao Pad fried-rice options) to $10.95 (for Kraprao Talay, a hot-and-spicy seafood melange). Many of the Thai dishes are $7.75.

We started with a couple of appetizers, and fine apps they were. Summer rolls ($2.50 for two) are a Vietnamese and Thai standard, tightly wrapped cylinders of translucent, edible rice paper rolled around a cool, crisp filling of finely shredded lettuce, rice noodles, thin slices of roast pork and colorful shrimp halves, positioned so their pink crescent shapes show through the “paper.” They come with a bowl of thick, hot-sweet peanut sauce topped with a sprinkle of finely chopped roasted peanuts.

Banh Xeo ($4.95) is a generous portion for a starter. A skillet-size, thin round, somewhere between a thin omelet and a crepe, is folded over a ration of crisp bean sprouts, onions, shrimp and pork, with a hot-tangy garlic sauce to pour over. It’s garnished, like many of Lemongrass’s dishes, with fresh, crisp lettuce, cucumber and tomato slices.

We enjoyed both Thai and Vietnamese main courses. A lemongrass-flavored dish seemed only right, and Com Nuong (grilled lemongrass chicken, $6.25) was fine. Thin, bite-size boneless chicken pieces were infused with a tangy lemongrass marinade and grilled sizzling crisp, served over lemongrass-scented jasmine rice. Pad Thai ($7.25 plus $1 for shrimp), was a decent rendition of this classic Thai home-cooking dish, tender rice noodles mixed with bean sprouts, with a good ration of well-cooked tailless shrimp, bits of scrambled egg and fine-chopped peanut and just a haunting distant scent of exotic Thai flavor, perhaps a dash of nam pla (fish sauce). For perfection, the bean sprouts should have been crisper – part of the genius of pad Thai is the textural contrast of hot rice noodles and cool, crisp sprouts – but that’s a small nit in a fine dish.

With a pot of hot oolong tea and a bottle of Vietnamese Ba MiBa (“33”) beer, a good dinner for two came to a reasonable $28.52, plus a $6 tip.

Lemongrass Café
106A Fairfax Ave.
(502) 893-7757

Thai restaurants have been around Louisville since the 1980s but were a little late getting here. For a while there, those of us who loved the stuff had to travel to Lexington, which got its first one – Siam Thai – a few years before we did. That was not a pretty sight.

I’ve recently made the rounds of several local Thai eateries to see how they’re faring. Following are mini-reports on three old standards.

One old-timer, Thai Cafe, located in the Holiday Manor Walk mini-mall, has settled in well. It’s small but attractive room gains from always cordial service and consistently fine Thai dishes. Pad Thai here was as good as any we’ve tried, properly made with crisp bean sprouts, and a spicy chicken-and-basil dish was also fine. I rate this one among the region’s top Thai, jostling for position with Mai’s Thai in Jeffersonville, Ind., and the somewhat more upscale Sala Thai in Jeffersontown. (We’ll reserve reviews of these top spots, and the recently refurbished Thai Smile 5 in Okolona, for another day.) Thai Cafe, 2226 Holiday Manor Shopping Center #8, (502) 425-4815.

Thai Taste, Clifton’s entry in the Thai sweepstakes on Lower Brownsboro Road, has settled in as a consistent favorite since it supplanted Spring Deer Chinese in its sizable shopping-strip room. Run by a friendly Thai family, Thai Taste is capable of offering Thai home cooking at its best, although it’s just small enough that lack of day-to-day consistency can occasionally occur. Pad Thai, however, is always among the very best; and Thai Taste does a very good job with a splendid weekday buffet that qualifies as one of the city’s best lunch bargains. Thai Taste Restaurant, 1977 Brownsboro Road, (502) 897-7682.

Because of space considerations, this third mini-review did not appear in The Voice-Tribune:

Finally, Thai-Siam, in the Outer Highlands, was Louisville’s first Thai restaurant, dating back to the late 1980s. I used to love it, but sadly, I can’t say that it’s worn well. I suspect that management over time has given in to suggestions from its regular clientele – and to its credit, it does enjoy a loyal following – and has somewhat “Americanized” the fare. We’ve dropped in a couple of times lately for lunch and left disappointed with several dishes that seemed to taste mostly of salt. Pad Thai was overcooked and one-dimensional; a chicken-and-basil main dish and corn soup were both so salty that I spent the rest of the day swilling water. Thai Siam, 3002 1/2 Bardstown Road, (502) 458-6871.