[Sidebar] November 23 - 30, 2000
[Food Reviews]
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Yummy, but not so spicy

by Bill Rodriguez

915 Atwood Ave, Johnston, 942-2658
Open Mon and Wed-Sat, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
Sun, 12-9:30 p.m.
Major credit cards
Sidewalk access

Thank heavens and a decent pad Thai. In the past decade or so, we've seen Far Eastern restaurants open around here like so many lotuses blossoming on a spring pond. In a Rhode Island peculiarity, the best ones offer not just Chinese cuisine, but also dishes from Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Another such multi-ethnic enterprise opened its doors about six months ago, deep in darkest Johnston. It looks -- and tastes -- like Lemongrass Restaurant is the latest welcome addition.

The places in which Shang Q. Wang, the Chinese-born chef/proprietor of Lemongrass, has been a partner is pretty much a catalogue of the best: Apsara, Four Seasons, Galaxie. He even worked in the kitchen of Little Chopsticks, the exclusively Chinese restaurant on Smith Street with a loyal following.

Friends who are big Galaxie and Apsara fans took us there to show off their discovery, which they'd already been to a couple of times in recent weeks. The place has plenty of elbow room, with tables widely separated, so you'll have to settle for conversation rather than eavesdropping. The decor is bright, with turquoise half-partitions and two wide, back-lit photographic murals, one of tourists rafting in Thailand before a dramatic mountainous background.

As we perused the menu, our guides gave us a survey of their favorites. The traditional Vietnamese bee boong, we were informed, has a nice "cucumbery freshness." The lemongrass chicken in its rich coconut base also got a high thumbs-up, and the pad Thai was "especially al dente."

We started out with a couple of appetizers and shrimp tom yam soup ($6.95). Our waiter arrayed our bowls and apportioned us two shrimp each -- less, I suspect, to preempt squabbles or be nice than because of experiences with customers trying to chew the fibrous galanga root, lemongrass stalks or lime leaves that were left in the tureen. The tom yam was richly flavorful, tangy and fiery. We also had the natang ($4.95), which are thin puffed rice cakes, accompanied by minced pork, with a loose tomato base to pile on top. This was a tasty combination of flavor and texture, so I was surprised when the peanut sauce that came with the nime chow ($2.75), the Vietnamese spring rolls that are so hard to pass up, was rather bland. More rice vinegar to tart it up would have made all the difference.

When we perused the menu for main dishes, my eyes automatically went to the chef's specials, usually a reliable indicator of what has proved popular. But as Mr. Shang pointed out in a friendly visit to the table, about 70 percent of the menu here is Chinese, and the specials offered only one item that was not.

One caution on the spicy-hot front: Unlike some Thai restaurants, where hot means puddled dental fillings, our four "hot" dishes were actually quite mild, even though the tom yam soup -- not announced as spicy hot -- was very much so. Blame the steady file of delicate-palated Johnston locals, I guess. There is a menu codicil which says you may order mild or extra hot, so I'd suggest doing the latter if you want some oomph.

Nevertheless, among the three items we ordered, two were particular hits. The spicy chicken with basil ($7.25) was a Thai preparation, colorful with red and green bell peppers, the chicken so fresh -- there's that word again -- and tender that it melted in my mouth. We were equally delighted by the string beans with garlic sauce ($5.95), which were tender and appealingly sweet, although they had minimal garlic and hotness. Less appreciated by all was the spicy squid with lemongrass ($8.50), whose sauce could have been more flavorful.

In an interesting promotion, you get a complimentary dish of General Tso's chicken here, through December 18, with every order of $30 or more. It was a pleasant surprise when this dish came to our table, the batter-fried morsels disappearing because of a just-one-more attitude, applied by each of us several times.

Unlike most strictly Chinese restaurants, Lemongrass offers several desserts, including a half-dozen ice creams, such as coconut, ginger and green tea. The restaurant has the cold end of the spectrum well in hand. We've just got to remind them to spice things up.

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