Steak and Peanut Butter
After school, when no one else was home, I used to experiment with new peanut butter sandwich combinations. If peanut butter and bacon tasted great, how about peanut butter and ham? And since I loved peanut butter and banana, why not try peanut butter and pears?
But in my wildest dreams, I never would have thought of peanut butter and grilled beef tenderloin with red onions and cucumber salad. But what a spectacular marriage of flavors! And the audible crunch of a little romaine lettuce adds a nice soundtrack.
You'll find this steak and peanut butter masterpiece on the lunch menu of the new Lemongrass Cafe in Bellaire. They call it a beef satay wrap. Okay, so they don't actually say it comes with peanut butter, but as we all know, that's what Thai peanut sauce tastes like.
Try following the wacky wrap with a dessert called coconut sweet rice and ripe mango, a combination of sweet sticky rice and juicy mango slices that's traditional in Thailand. It may be old-fashioned in Bangkok, but here on the corner of Bellaire and Rice, it's breathtakingly sophisticated. You don't see many Asian sticky rice desserts here in the land of the Bellaire Broiler.
You don't expect to see a minimalist interior with cool wasabi-colored walls, clean architectural lines and Asian wall hangings, either. I wish I could report that every dish in this hip little cafe is as exciting as the peanut butter sandwich and the sticky rice dessert, but in fact, the menu is hit-or-miss.
The head chef and co-owner is a young Thai woman named Srifah Vorarittinapa, who goes by the Americanized name of Fah Vora. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, Vora worked under Tim Keating at the Four Seasons and at Brennan's before opening her own place.
Vora's dishes are brimming with youthful exuberance. Spicy Thai ceviche is a Little Mermaid's menagerie of scallops, shrimp and calamari in lime and pineapple juices spiked with cilantro, red onion and chiles. The vibrant South American-Thai seafood cocktail comes in a martini glass, and it looks as wild as it tastes.
Unfortunately, some of Vora's experiments fizzle. Lemongrass pizza is a fusion concept that looks good on paper but doesn't fly. The combination of chicken, lemongrass, mushroom, tomato and mozzarella might have worked if it weren't for the rubbery crust. Before you can come up with a fabulous fusion pizza, you have to be able to bake a first-class crust -- no easy task.
The best meat dish on the dinner menu goes by the somewhat misleading name of Korean osso buco. No, it's not a veal hindshank, nor does it pretend to be. It's billed as a lamb shank braised in wine. And the meat is cooked until it falls off the bone and into the combination of mashed potato and lotus root it's served over. This one won't disappoint.
The wood-grilled hoisin rib eye steak, on the other hand, is a gamble. I ordered one medium rare and got an unevenly cut steak that was bloody rare on the thick end and pinkly medium on the skinny end. And it was so riddled with gristle that each bite required extensive steak-knife surgery. No doubt the quality of the meat varies, and I got a bad one.
But the main problem I encountered at Lemongrass Cafe was too many blah, flavorless concoctions. The Guilin rice noodles billed as "pineapple-coconut chicken in a sweet and rich green curry over Chinese rice noodles" came with overcooked noodles and a barely perceptible amount of curry. It tasted like a bowl of sweet glop.
Red snapper with sautéed mushrooms, tomato and fingerling potatoes was floating in a watery and flavorless imitation of the Thai soup called tom yum. A dish of seared sea scallops and grilled shrimp in lemongrass and kaffir cream sauce with mushrooms and spinach would have been stellar if the scallops weren't so mushy.
I lost interest in the chicken coconut galanga-root soup after a couple of spoonfuls. And the tri-mushroom consommé was way too delicate for me. The truffle-scented siu mai dumplings tasted fine but didn't smell much like truffles, and the "three onion cedar plank salmon" had a nice smoky aroma but was dry from overcooking.
Some of these failings are due to technique, but most are attributable to underseasoning. I'm afraid that Vora is having the same problems that many Thai chefs face when they cook for a mainstream American audience. Americans love Thai flavors, but they can't tolerate the authentic level of heat and sourness. And so the chefs attempt to tone down the spice level of their native food. The early attempts at compromise often overshoot the mark and land on the bland side.
The cafe's pad thai is a vivid illustration of the dilemma. The noodle dish comes to the table wrapped in a thin sheet of scrambled eggs, just like the best pad thai I've ever eaten -- the one served at a food stand in Bangkok.
After dark, the stand's easy to find. A fan blowing across hot charcoal under a giant wok sends bright red sparks flying out over the street in a miniature fireworks display. The noodles there are rich and sticky, with lots of tamarind and plenty of chile sauce to bind them. When they're done, beaten eggs are poured across the hot wok to form a thin sheet in which the noodles are neatly packaged.
The sight of the same sort of egg-packaged pad thai at Lemongrass Cafe made me hope that I was in for a treat. But under the sheet of eggs, the noodles were barely seasoned. The sauce was boring, and there wasn't enough of it to make the noodles stick together. And the only chile sauce was a squirt-bottle painting on the side of the plate. The dish was so dull, it barely resembled pad thai anymore.
Granted, Lemongrass Cafe isn't trying to be a Thai restaurant. So it's not fair to complain when we aren't hit with the freight train of flavors typical of that cuisine. But let's hope that as the young Thai chef grows in confidence, she will dare to drop a few of the menu's more flavorless dishes and replace them with zestier Asian fusion inventions.
Vora is obviously a dedicated and hardworking chef. I'm confident that the process of trial and error will lead her to a menu of solid hits. She should have plenty of time to work on it. Bellaire is so starved for chic restaurants that the Lemongrass Cafe is already a local favorite.
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