Southeast fancy

It’s easy to jump on the latest bandwagon of every new restaurant that rolls into town. Recession aside, even a restaurant reviewer can barely keep up with the flood of chic eateries opening almost daily. While I was revamping this paper’s restaurant listings, I noticed some odd absences: restaurants that have been around for a decade or so and that are held up as examples of fine dining but that have never been reviewed in these pages.

Lemon Grass is a perfect example of this puzzling neglect. When Mai Pham opened this restaurant 11 years ago, it was the first time anyone had attempted Southeast Asian cuisine in an elegant setting in Sacramento. Pham, who was born in Vietnam and raised in Thailand, chose to serve a combination of Vietnamese and Thai cuisines. Of course, the idea proved to be a raging success, paving the way for restaurants like Thai Basil and, more recently, Bamboo. And Pham has parlayed her initial venture into a publishing empire, with several successful cookbooks and a column in the San Francisco Chronicle.

So, 11 years later, does Lemon Grass deserve its reputation as the best Vietnamese restaurant in Sacramento? Well, it depends on what precisely you’re hunting for. If you’re looking for a stylish eatery with better-than-average food, the answer is yes. If you’re looking for absolutely stellar food, environment be damned, the answer, sadly, is no.

Certainly, no fault can be found with the ambience. Pham’s eatery is both stylish and intimate, with warmly hued walls playing off granite-look tabletops and sleek wood chairs. Sprays of orchids decorate each table, and a fire helps warm the space on winter nights. The service stuttered on occasion, with a few mysterious disappearances by our waiter very early on a Monday evening. Though our entrees arrived on the heels of our appetizer, the people next to us, who ordered before we did, were still waiting for their entrees a full 30 minutes later. The waiter offered them only a lame explanation that the vegetarian entree took longer to prepare. More offensive was the hostess, who expressed herself after seating the couple to the other side of us by rolling her eyes behind their backs. She should have saved that for a location where other diners could not have observed her.

Everything was incredibly fresh, from the herbs used in the salad rolls to the shrimp and scallops in the Saigon crêpes. Though our food was good, not one dish stood out as exceptional. The salad rolls ordered as appetizers ($7.95) were a case in point. They arrived on a beautiful platter, rolled and cut in a sushi-like presentation, with a black-bean dipping sauce. But, though the herbs and bean sprouts provided the requisite crunch and flavor, the dish still fell strangely flat. This was so puzzling that I ended up dissecting several pieces, much to my husband’s mortification. The thinly sliced pork and poached shrimp in the rolls proved to be the culprits. Both types of meat tasted like nothing at all; the chef could have achieved the same effect with a cotton ball.

Our entrees, though decent enough, lacked the spark that would elevate them above the pack. Pham herself identifies her style of cooking as offering sharp and vibrant flavors, even if, as she says, Vietnamese food tends to be more delicate in flavor than Thai. I tried a dish called Warm Beef on Cold Noodles ($12.95), which consisted of beef stir-fried with lemon grass and garlic; served over a bed of cool noodles, bean sprouts, cucumber and mint; and garnished with roasted peanuts. The lemon grass was somewhat discernible, but I can’t say the same for the garlic or the fresh mint. The beef was very tender, but the overall dish lacked the kind of punch I expect from Vietnamese food.

A tentative hand with the seasoning also marked the Saigon crêpes, which were one of the specials offered the night we visited. The crêpes were seasoned with yellow curry; enclosed a filling of fat scallops, shrimp and sliced mushrooms; and came accompanied by a tangy dipping sauce. The crêpes themselves were quite greasy, a definite mark against them, and were really too unwieldy to dip.

Lemon Grass succeeds quite well if its mission is to provide an upscale, comfortable environment in which to dabble in Southeast Asian cuisine. This is the kind of place I’d take my parents to. But its food is not quite top-notch, and that’s a shame.