Dish

Meet the meatless at the Lemongrass

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The late evening sun was slanting across the strip mall’s parking lot
as my sister and I approached the Lemongrass Café. Ah, Edmonton: City
of Champions, strip malls and asphalt parking lots. Sometimes, however, if
you brush off the dust of the chain restaurants, video rental places and
fast-food drive-thrus, you discover a gem like the Lemongrass
Café.

We pulled open the door and stepped into the calm interior of the restaurant.
Bright and airy, the open room was surprisingly busy for later on a Thursday
evening. Even so, we had less than 10 seconds to glance around before the
server led us past the artfully-arranged greenery and to our table. Two
glasses of water arrived before we could open our menus, and we sipped
contentedly as we flipped through the pages. Only one was important to us,
however: the very back page. “Vegetarian Selections” called to
us, softly.

I am vegan. This often means that I test a server’s patience and
knowledge to the extreme. I ask a million little questions about what is in
the food. A few trips back and forth to the kitchen to quiz the chef are
required, but I can always find something to eat.

At the Lemongrass, they have already kindly set aside a page of items for the
veggies among us. I made sure that the curry only had coconut milk and the
salad roll dipping sauce had no fish flavouring added, at which point my
sweet, omnivorous-yet-in-love-with-vegan-food sister and I settled on dinner.
Two salad rolls would start us off, followed by stir-fried mixed vegetables
in black bean sauce and the vegetarian special, listed as vegetables and tofu
in a creamy coconut curry sauce. We settled back in our chairs, anticipating
the arrival of our dinners.

The Lemongrass Café is a calm, cool space decorated austerely in
various shades of green. There are beautiful black-and-white photographs
adorning the walls, and the tables are simple, surrounded with wicker-backed
metal chairs. As we chatted, we noticed an absence of music in the background
and we could easily hear snippets of other diners’ conversations when
we reached a pause in our own. The atmosphere seemed geared toward a casual
dinner with little lingering, rather than a comfortable, drawn-out evening.
None of this mattered when our salad rolls were placed on the table in front
of us.

Presented on a shell-shaped white plate, the two plump rolls were arranged to
show the mint leaf visible through the translucent rice-paper wrapper. Soft
and just a little tacky on the outside, Vietnamese salad rolls are a far cry
from their cousins, the deep-fried and crispy spring roll. Where the spring
roll is hot and greasy, the salad roll is cool and refreshing.

We quickly concluded that double-dipping was OK under these particular
circumstances and dove in. The first bite had a little bit of all the
ingredients, and the flavours unfolded as we chewed. The largely tasteless
rice paper roll was packed full of skinny vermicelli noodles, a strip of
fried tofu, slivered cucumbers and a whole, fresh mint leaf. These were
complemented perfectly by the rich-tasting peanut dipping sauce, flecked with
a spicy chili paste and sprinkled with finely-chopped peanuts. After
devouring our one roll each, we exchanged a glance. I knew exactly what she
was thinking: we should have ordered four. Given the amount of food yet to
come, this would have been ridiculously unnecessary.

Every other patron in the restaurant stopped chewing and turned to look as
our food, held aloft by the server, sizzled loudly on its cast-iron serving
dishes. Aromas intermingled as we let them cool slightly on the table: sweet,
tangy, smoky and exotic. We grabbed spoons and dug in, ladling hot spoonfuls
of tofu, vegetables and sauce over the white rice that came on the side.
Interestingly enough, both dishes were exactly the same except for the
cooking sauce, even though their descriptions were different on the
menu.

Both were a medley of snow peas, celery, bok choy, mushrooms, carrots,
broccoli and fried tofu, quickly stir-fried over high heat to retain flavour
and crunch. The curry sauce was light, sweet and tangy, not spicy in the
least. The flavour of the thin sauce seemed almost lost on some of the
vegetables, but the tofu soaked it all up. Each piece was chewy and full of
curry.

Because both entrees turned out to be so similar, we made the inevitable
comparisons. The clear winner was the black bean sauce, a complex blend that
was smoky, sweet and balanced with just the right amount of garlic. It coated
the vegetables and tofu perfectly. Small black beans were scattered
throughout. As I was taking seconds from the dish, I caught my sister
stealing more sauce to ladle over her rice. Luckily, there was enough of
everything that we ended up taking home a mound of leftovers, and the server
was kind enough to throw in extra rice to make the meal complete.

We paid the bill ($35 including tax and tip) and stepped out of the
restaurant’s cool interior, back onto the hot asphalt under the neon
glow of the strip mall. A bag full of tasty food will serve to remind us that
not every strip mall lacks a soul. V

Sun – Thu until 9 pm; Fri – Sat until 10 pm
Lemongrass
Café

10417 – 51 avenue
413.0088

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