"Sweet olfactory bliss!"
My friend and I both thought it, but neither one of us said it in those words exactly. The moment we stepped into Lemongrass Bistro, a meaty-minty-fishy somethingness embraced us with a clear promise: This was going to be a thoroughly satisfying meal.
And noses don't lie.
Never remembering it by name, I'd been wanting to try "the other Saigon Caf place, up north" since I heard that the popular downtown Vietnamese destination had a sister. Turns out it's more of a brother, and just one of two. There's also Fine Vietnamese Cuisine, located off Centennial Boulevard. Brothers Patrick, Paul and Dang Truong each own a restaurant.
Lemongrass is Dang's operation. It's been open for a bit more than a year, and the relatively busy dining room I saw suggests it has developed a clientele.
Lemongrass' excellence shone straight away with two starters: its beef lemon appetizer ($7.25), a tangy mound of thin-sliced beef and onions garnished in peanuts; and vegetarian egg rolls ($7), stuffed in typical fashion with vegetable and tofu strips, but notable for perfect crispness. Later, the vegetarian spring rolls ($2.15 each) stood out for their freshness and their delicate rice-paper wrap.
On our first evening visit, we went with our knowledgeable server's entre recommendations. The Lemongrass Three Amigos (chicken, beef and shrimp, $12.50) was dressed in a moderately spicy lemongrass sauce over rice, and the beef pho soup ($8.50) came complex, peppery and delicious, fusing spices like cinnamon and anise into a nine-hour matured stock of beef brisket, eye of round and beef meatballs. Both portions were generous.
While the Three Amigos was good, it wasn't unlike common stir-fries. But the pho really impressed me, a first-timer to the soup style. It's a dish I envision craving come a cool fall night, though there's nothing wrong with a summer sweat (which is how I imagine the Vietnamese enjoy the dish).
A midday Sunday visit brought my girlfriend's favorite dish, a vegetarian bun (noodle bowl, $7.50 lunch, $8.95 dinner), and Lemongrass's highest-priced item, the seafood combination ($13.50). The bun came out missing its key mint leaves, but once we flagged down the waitress, my girlfriend was back in business. She said the lettuce, cucumbers, tofu and bean sprouts over vermicelli (thin rice noodles), topped in a chili lime sauce, peanuts and a special soy sauce, tasted identical to the bun at Saigon Caf a compliment.
The seafood dish, in a thick coconut sauce, tasted more Thai to me, with fresh-tasting scallops, shrimp, squid and a couple mussels mixed with onions and topped in peanuts.
The Lemongrass Bistro must not sell many desserts (all $3.50), as my check was presented before an offer on both visits. But our servers looked happy, beyond surprised, when we requested coconut milk parfaits (one over red beans, the other over Jell-O cubes and island fruits like lychees and jackfruits) during one visit, and flan caramel and vanilla crme brule the next.
The brule lacked true vanilla bean and a good caramelization, but the Vietnamese fare delivered the sweetened coconut milk was a drug.
Minor points aside, Lemongrass Bistro, with a clean interior, friendly staff and overall great food, is worth a stop. And then a long, deep inhale.
6840 N. Academy Blvd., 592-1391
Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and dinner, 4-9 p.m., daily.