Bowled Over By Lemongrass
By Marissa Marsey
“Wow, you really went all the way,” admired a woman as I passed her table carrying my tray, the bowl atop it nearly overflowing with the vivid Asian-inspired meal I had just orchestrated here at 10-month old Lemongrass Grille in Chesapeake. She shot her husband a look, a visual elbow in the ribs signifying, “See, that’s how it’s done.”
Moments earlier, it had gone down – or rather, built up – like this: I pointed to tender leafy greens (though citrus rice and gluten-free noodles made tempting foundations, too), prompting the polite counter server to ask if I wanted a bowl or wrap; opting for the former, I then requested cilantro-ginger grilled chicken as my protein, attracted by its brazier cuts. At the next step, “Pick your Veggies” (choose one or several, says the sign), I went overboard with all, meaning flash-seared sesame broccoli, garlic bok choy, charred corn and roasted pepper sauté, blistered green beans, and the vegetable du jour, which this jour was sweet potatoes. After that, I picked pineapple garlic chutney for my sauce, though it was a tough call since mild green curry, hot red curry, and noodle broth each held allure, and peanut garlic and coconut ginger sauces also were in the running. I captured many of those flavors anyway, when I moved down the line to “Garnish” with its choose-any-or-all roster of soft garlic, sweet-hot chili and red onion jam, chunky chopped peanuts, crispy scallions, candied ginger, and seaweed salad. Just as with the vegetables, I went with all. It’s not that I’m indecisive, I just love the colorful zing, the yin and yang of so many textures and flavors at play. It’s like inviting friends from all the different corners of your life to a party and marveling at how well they mingle.
“We weren’t sure what to get,” the woman continued demurely. No need to be stumped. The way they do at ice cream shops, servers cheerfully provide taste samples. So don’t be shy.
Essentially, Lemongrass is like Subway. You call the shots, guiding staff (might they be called bowl-istas here?) with what to put in, what to leave out. Like Chipotle (which has rolled out its own Asian-themed eatery, ShopHouse, in Washington, D.C., and L.A.), it embodies the ethos of eco-friendly dining with consciously-sourced produce and meat from animals raised humanely and treated responsibly, free of hormones and antibiotics. But it veers from those mega chains in that it’s homegrown, reminiscent of Machismo in the burrito bar’s early glory days.
Robert Brennan and Jackie Ivester, a brother and sister with roots in the local foodservice community, opened Lemongrass as a healthier alternative to slapdash greasy burgers born of factory farms. “We’re trying to step away from the industrial food chain,” explains Brennan. I was an admirer of his erstwhile Brennan’s Bistro in Virginia Beach’s Wayside Village a decade ago, and he and Ivester, who managed Brennan’s and its catering branch, bring the same care to this casual setting as they did to fine dining. This isn’t fast food, but rather slow food fast.
That grilled chicken I savored? It’s free-range, and Brennan marinates it for two days in fresh lime and lemon juices, cilantro, ginger, and agave. Before braising his beef overnight, he marinates it in soy sauce, Worcestershire, red wine, onions, and garlic. He dry rubs the pork with brown sugar and Chinese five spice powder, then smokes it over hickory chips. He mixes up a pineapple ponzu to glaze tofu. Pretty much everything but the whole wheat wraps is made on premise.
Although there are chopsticks alongside the usual utensils, “we don’t set out to be extremely authentic Asian with fish sauces and such,” Brennan explains. “But with citrus flavors, rice vinegar and mirins, ingredients and techniques that appeal to a broad American base.”
Brennan finds that younger customers latch on to Lemongrass’ concept right away, easily dictating their choices through the five steps (it would take a math wiz to calculate the discrete possibilities of three bases, four proteins, five veggies, six sauces, and seven garnishes). Occasionally folks, like the couple I encountered, seem stymied. They can take the shortcut of ordering the Lemongrass Sampler – rice and noodles, pork, beef, chicken, green beans, broccoli, bok choy, coconut ginger sauce and a side of peanut garlic sauce – spelled out on the specials board. A daily soup, potstickers, a side of fried won tons, and a sole dessert – brownies – round out the offerings along with a kids menu. Brennan’s white tablecloth background mandated that he couldn’t have an eatery without alcohol so as casual as this farm-to-counter setting is, it sells beer and wine. Even sake.
Like the cuisine, the interior is crisp and perky, colored mostly green – to evoke the environment – with a bit of plum. A tree painted on the wall buds with photos of dewy-fresh ingredients. Whimsical light fixtures could be flower petals or cumulus clouds, it’s open to debate.
What is for sure is that the one price – $6.50 – for every bowl and wrap constitutes a huge value. If the heaping dish I customized had been weighed at Whole Foods, it would have rung up much higher, making Lemongrass a worthy neighbor to “max for the minimum” retailers TJ Maxx and Marshalls in Crossways Center (across from Greenbrier Mall). From the parking lot, you’ll see Lemongrass’ banner proclaiming: “Feel good about your food. No GMO, No CAFO, No Antibiotics… Yes to local when in season and Yes to organic when available.” This ‘grass is greener.
1412 Greenbrier Parkway, #117, Chesapeake. 228-7870. Open Mon.-Sat. from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sun. from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. www.lemongrassgrille.com
Got restaurant, food or beverage news? Contact Marisa Marsey at email@example.com.