Lemongrass Cafe
10417 51 Ave.
Mon. to Fri. 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Sat. noon to 10 p.m.
Sun. 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. 
Food:  4 of 5 Suns
Ambience: 3 of 5 Suns
Service: 3 of 5 Suns
When my family is in the mood for a light, tasty, filling meal, we inevitably turn to Vietnamese cooking.
It’s a gentle, delicate cuisine - less greasy than Chinese, not as spicy or sweet as Thai, less forceful than South Asian. More shy and retiring than other Asian cuisines, Vietnamese food is dependably tasty, rarely sits around in the kitchen, and usually uses the freshest of ingredients.

Then there’s the famous pho soup, a meal unto itself for which every self-respecting Vietnamese restaurant has a secret family recipe. I have a mental taste-fest, just thinking about pho!

Heading into the city from the Edmonton International on Saturday afternoon, the Lemongrass Café on the South Side, on 51 Ave. was calling our name - especially after a four-hour plane ride where, of course, passengers weren’t fed.

We were all the more hungry, waiting four minutes at the 51 Avenue/111 Street LRT crossing for a green light. 

The Lemongrass is a near quintessential Vietnamese eatery.  The venue is pleasant and clean with loads of natural light, an interesting menu and  excellent food.

Yet it lacks personality.  The manager/server isn’t particularly happy or sad, he’s not particularly enthused or unenthused about his food. He’s efficient but impersonal. 

The menu selections at the Lemongrass are wide-ranging, venturing well beyond the usual vermicelli bowls and meat/shrimp skewers on rice. There are enough intriguing choices to make ordering a lengthy affair despite the rumbling in our tummies.

We opted for the crispy tofu salad and char-broiled grilled mussels as starters.

How many times do you see 10 mussels grilled in the half-shell and presented on a plate in oyster fashion? They were fresh, plump, grilled with onion oil and roasted peanuts. On the side was a clean, fish sauce for dipping. 

Crispy tofu is familiar, but the Lemongrass Café is really good at creating delicate, light tofu sticks, even though they had been deep fried.  They parade like soldiers around a lettuce and shredded carrot bed  on which had been ladled a tangy, peppery, garlic soy vinaigrette. It sounds heavy, but mixed with the super-light crispy tofu, it was a fine and unusual salad.

We didn’t try the house pho, billed only as “beef noodle soup”. If it’s as good as the Lemongrass Café’s big, steaming bowl of coconut-lemongrass-seafood-noodle soup, it’ll be a must-try next time around. 

It’s in the soups that Vietnamese cooks unleash their chili peppers and hot oils, let the coconut milk and lemongrass long simmer, add the mushroom, garlic, onions and finally, close to serving time, toss in the prawns, squid and mussels.  This was a steamy, fragrant, spicy, sinus-clearing winner.

The vermicelli bowl with lightly charred shrimp was tasty, as was the house “rice on a plate” combo, essentially grilled chicken, beef and shrimp added to a veggie stir fry.  Good, but the same basic dish you find in dozens of other decent Vietnamese eateries. 

The Lemongrass Café isn’t interested in a dining experience, being content to simply put forth very good Vietnamese cooking with little passion. A pity – with a dash of welcoming human warmth to go with the food, the café could be a South Side landmark rather than an after-thought.

* * *

Speaking of personality, the 25th Annual Sorrentino’s Garlic Festival happens throughout April at all five Sorrentino’s restaurants (Downtown, West, South, Little Italy and St. Albert) plus the Bistecca restaurant. 

This year, each outlet is doing its own special garlic features.  With the lousy economy, there’s an emphasis on back-to-basic garlic selections. Special activities have been limited to garlic cooking classes and on Wednesday, April 27, 5% of all sales will be donated to the Buchanan Centre for Parkinson’s Disease. (Go to Sorrentinos.com for more info.)

Back for a third time as the Sorrentino’s Garlic Festival King is my Art of Conversation co-host Rob Christie of Capital FM, with his queen Seanna Collins of Global TV. 

How can you tell we’re in a recession? Across the region, pizza and pasta sales are soaring. But sales of fancy entrees, i.e.  over $25, have nose-dived.

Graham Hicks