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Out of a possible five

Odd menu serves up bounty of tasty finds

I cannot criticize Lemongrass restaurant for not being adventurous, that is for sure.

From its name, I expected this little eatery in a strip mall near Parkview Hospital on State Boulevard to offer mostly Asian fare. And there was some on the menu – noodle bowls, rice dishes and spring rolls.

But moussaka (Greek), quesadillas (Tex-Mex) and falafel (Middle Eastern) weren’t exactly what I thought I would find at a place called Lemongrass.

But what I did find was a confusing menu handwritten on a giant chalkboard wall with mixed results that would probably make a better impression with a little work.

The only dish on the Lemongrass menu that actually had lemongrass in it was the Lemongrass salad, which had a roasted lemongrass vinaigrette.

Owner-chef Leonard Easterly explained he ran a catering company by the same name for a few years and that he loves growing lemongrass in his garden in the summer, so the name just seemed right regardless of his offerings.

The vegan Lemongrass noodle bowl (no lemongrass) was made with vegetable stock and was said to include organic wheat udon noodles, shitake mushrooms, scallions, snow peas, tomatoes, carrots and roasted ginger. It had the udon – a thin version much like capellini – and the carrots, one snow pea and ginger, but also included cabbage, alfalfa sprouts, red peppers, celery, broccoli, zucchini and squash. There were no mushrooms or tomatoes.

I asked why there were no mushrooms and, after consulting with Easterly, my server insisted there were, indeed, mushrooms in the soup. I know what a mushroom looks like and tastes like, and there were no mushrooms in this bland vegetarian soup, which could have really used some.

There were some real tasty finds at Lemongrass, however.

The crispy house chips were a great way to start a meal and are a must on the side of any sandwich. The paper-thin potatoes were crisp and simply – but beautifully – seasoned with just a little salt and pepper.

The butternut squash soup was sublime – thick and creamy with just the right sweetness. The white bean chili was also tasty with a lot of red pepper heat and use of other herbs. Both blew away the broccoli and roasted garlic soup, which lacked garlic flavor and seasoning. The house-made focaccia bread that accompanied all the soups was also sweet, dense and quite tasty.

The falafel sandwich and Panama – a hash-like concoction – were above par.

The falafel was crunchy outside and creamy inside, and it was served on Indian naan bread with tomato, cucumbers, red onion and creamy cucumber sauce.

The Panama, which Easterly added to beef up his vegetarian-heavy menu, was a scrambled mix of chunks of spicy chorizo, chicken breast, potatoes, tomatoes, cilantro and cheese also served on naan. It was filling and full of flavor, and a little of the salsa fresca garnish added just the right hint of acid. The only troubling aspect was when a dining companion asked for the cilantro on the side and was for some reason denied.

The Fuji Bowl, another vegan noodle dish, fared better than the signature noodle bowl. The cubes of tofu were toasted before being put in the vegetable broth so they had texture, and they really soaked up all of the salty-sweet flavor put off by the Thai chiles, tomatoes, snow peas, garlic, cilantro and basil in the broth.

The seared tuna salad was a mixed bag. I ordered it during both visits as an appetizer, and both times the tuna was improperly seared – one time overdone and medium and the other underdone and gray instead of crisp and brown on the outside.

Also during one visit, the tuna smelled and tasted off. The sweet chile soy vinaigrette, however, was fantastic and would not be out of place with tuna at any upscale Japanese restaurant – as long as the tuna was fresh.

As are most of the offerings at Lemongrass, the desserts all come from the hands of Easterly, who said, “They are not the prettiest, but they are made here.”

The chocolate brownies looked a little flat and deflated, but they were moist and gooey, and yummy. The yellow cake was also a winner – light and moist with a great sugary sweet icing.

Lemongrass also has the potential to be a winner. Its commitment to organic ingredients and healthy food is refreshing, and just needs more consistency and, perhaps, some scaling back on all the varieties of food to reach that potential.

Restaurant: Lemongrass

Address: 2805 E. State Blvd.

Phone: 755-1482

Hours: 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday

Cuisine: Mixed

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: None

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Soup ($2.75 cup; $3.50 bowl), Lemongrass noodle bowl ($7.50), seared tuna salad ($8.99), falafel sandwich ($7), Panama ($8.50), brownies ($2.25), cake ($3.50)

Rating breakdown: Food: * 1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 0 (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.