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Lemongrass

The last nights of Pho 777 were a bittersweet reunion for well-wishers of Nga Tran, the best of a solid line of Vietnamese chefs in Iowa. Her restaurant drew an enthusiastic clientele that one doesn’t expect on Sixth Avenue — New York City publishers and high ranking politicians were among its fans. But it was extraordinarily unlucky. Soon after her debut, Nga learned that a swank new Vietnamese café was opening four blocks east. A few months after that, she lost her Touch Play machines. Admirers are hoping to keep Nga in town, but she told us she was moving to Keokuk.

As 777 came down for its hard landing, Lemongrass opened on the University Strip in Clive, not far from where the doomed Mimosa introduced Indochina cuisine to the western burbs three years ago. Things have changed since that excellent café folded. Suburban demographics are shifting as fast as a Wells Fargo wagon. Lemongrass chef Chad Lum says a quarter of their business is with Asians. Such a knowledgeable clientele can keep ethnic restaurants safe from the one-menu-fits-all trap that catches so many Mexican places outside the inner city. Unusual touches, including linen and silk table cloths, plus fresh flowers in the men’s bathroom, will widen Lemongrass’ customer base.

The metro now boasts half a dozen truly excellent Thai-Lao cafés and each distinguishes its menu from the others. Lemongrass adds mightily to that happy trend with several family heirloom recipes from northern Laos. Their “hor moak pla” is a culinary statement; Dilled catfish is cooked for hours in banana leaf, rendering a starchy texture without any starches, and a gamut of rich flavors. This might be the world’s finest use of both catfish and dill. Lum also makes a chicken version.

“Ou larm” brought a mix of galangal, lemon grass, spinach, green beans and shitakes in a flavorful soupy broth. Some elephant ear, a fungus that has miraculous abilities to absorb other flavors, took it to another level. Sticky rice is served with the dish at dinner, but regrettably not at lunch. The dish begs to be served in a clay pot rather than on a plate, but I’m nit picking.

“Three flavor fish,” another family heirloom, brought fried tilapia on spinach and basil in a tamarind-based sweet sauce and caramelized onions. Stir-fried “lemon grass” dishes presented an edible form of the restaurant’s namesake, with peppers and root vegetables. “Larp” was different from other versions around town reminding me of Nga Tran’s crepes — with a bed of lettuces and sticky rice accompanying the heavily herbed minced meat.

Lum said that stocks for soups and sauces, both Vietnamese and Thai, are made from bone-scratch daily. Thai soups use chicken stock with ginger family members and lemon grass. Phos are made from a rare combination of chicken and beef bones. Heat in curry came more from sprinklings of dried red peppers than from fresh chilies in their pastes. All were sweetened with coconut milk. My green curry was far too heavy with bamboo shoots, too light on basil. My red curry was more interesting, with several vegetables including eggplant.

Some less distinctive dishes are popular — “put thai” was one of the least fishy (salty-sour) versions I’ve found, tasting of peanuts and sweetness. Similarly, my green papaya salad was accessible for timid taste buds, delivering some of the flavor of unripe papaya and fish sauce without overwhelming palates that aren’t used to those wavelengths. Its dressing is a family secret, but excludes the harsh shrimp paste that can overwhelm western tongues. However, Lum will prepare anything either “Thai” or “Lao” style — the latter uses more strong flavors, particularly fermented shrimp paste and fish sauce.

Sides dish

Legacy Sports Bar & Grill opened in the former Woodee’s (87 N.E. Carefree Ln., Waukee) featuring hand breaded fried foods, hand cut steaks, prime sirloin and Waukee’s first weekend breakfast. And yes, they salvaged Woodee’s popular lemon crème brulee. CV

By Jim Duncan CVFDude@aol.com
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