It takes some serious guts to open a restaurant amid an economic tempest. Yet among the shuttering retail stores of Queen Ka‘ahumanu Shopping Center sits new Vietnamese restaurant Lemongrass, a place that exudes boldness in every way.
You walk into the place and you instantly notice the atmosphere: the walls are blazing orange and accented with some excellent photographs that capture Vietnamese landscape and culture. Bamboo lines the windows. The décor is decidedly modern, in a genuinely feng shui manner. Whoever decked this place out has style.
That would be owner Laura Nguyen, the single mother of two who once ran a restaurant of the same name in Lahaina, but closed it to spend more time with her then-teenage daughter (who now attends UH and manages the Fairmont Orchid on the Big Island).
Lemongrass works well as a lunch destination, but the full bar indicates that this place would be an excellent candidate for happy hour. In fact, diners at one table are nursing a couple mojitos.
Nearly every seat in the house is an excellent perch for people watching. Mall-goers of every stripe pass by the window, constituting what is probably one of the best representative samples of Maui’s population one can get (off-the-gridders aside).
The menu is small but packed with dishes undeniably authentic and inspired. Among the mix are the essentials: green papaya salad, pho, Saigon curry, as well as creative dishes like sugarcane shrimp (shrimp mousse served with a sugarcane stick, fresh herbs and rice vermicelli sheets).
Those who, like me, avoid animal products will be stoked to know that not only are there veg options, but they are marked on the menu as being so. You can dig your bun (Vietnamese noodle salad) while your associates go to town on their shaking beef and clay pot fish.
The spring rolls—which can contain lemongrass tofu or meat, your choice—are an ideal starter. Especially when you factor in the peanut sauce.
The wok-seared vegetables, which I ordered, are up there with rosemary-roasted potatoes and New Mexico green chile stew when it comes to comfort (or hangover) foods. The dish contains a combination of vegetables—broccoli, carrots, zucchini, bamboo shoots, mushrooms—as fresh as the ones sold at the produce market located at the mall’s hub, and cooked to perfection. The veggies are seasoned with a rich, garlicky sauce and served alongside a bowl of sticky jasmine rice. It’s the perfect antidote to the malaise that can often hang heavily over a chilly, gloomy late winter day.
My associate ordered crispy chow mein, which contained chicken and an array of vegetables. She indicated that, like my choice, the dish was an excellent comfort food.
Boldness is a quality that few possess and fewer can exhibit with grace. In both style and content, Lemongrass is an establishment that pulls it off well despite the gloom that currently hangs in the air. MTW