Naresh and Madhu Sharma never quite hit their stride with Green Chili Indian Bistro on Central Avenue. So they moved north, opening a restaurant of the same name just last week in Largo at the site of Wing Zone. Their empty restaurant, in the shadow of the BB&T building, was taken over by Kitty and Ed Onphianek and relaunched as the Lemon Grass, a Thai/Japanese/pan-Asian tapas lunch and dinner house.
The couple cut their teeth at Basil Leaf Thai Sushi and Noodles in St. Pete Beach, which has a similar agenda and menu. That restaurant, opened in 2011, has a shared visual aesthetic as well. Kitty took what had been a British pub and glammed it up, big time. It's stylish and dark and architecturally interesting, someplace you'd feel comfortable getting a little dressed up (and really, on the beach, that's a rarity). The Lemon Grass follows suit, a fairly workhorse dining room given a sleek makeover, with booths and moody lighting.
At lunchtime, it's bento boxes and lunch specials in the $7.95 to $10.95 range, strange table-fellow cuisines that somehow work: Imagine coconutty Thai Panang curry with a scoop of white rice tucked into a sectioned box with two pork gyoza (dumplings), a round of fried eggplant, a quartet of California roll slices and a little bowl of miso soup. Since opening, the pacing at lunch is unpredictable — one visit, it suited my office lunch hour schedule, another time we were craning our necks for service and compulsively checking the time.
Downtown St. Petersburg has a lot of choice at lunchtime, even quite a bit of Thai and sushi at this price point. What you'll find at the Lemon Grass is competent and well priced, but the familiar executions aren't raising the bar. At dinnertime, the menu spreads out a little further and this is where things get interesting.
The many-page dinner menu has several sections devoted to Asian tapas, the best of which is a selection of raw fish in zappy presentations. Tuna, salmon, yellowtail and friends are commingled and encircled with thin ribbons of cucumber and paired with a spicy ponzu sauce ($9-$13, depending on the filling). Same goes for a selection of Vietnamese-inspired fresh rolls packed with herbs, cuke, bean sprouts and lettuce and served with a traditional (but super sweet) Thai peanut sauce ($6-$10, depending on filling).
Still, it was dishes like the "tuna zap" ($12.95) that got my attention: thin slices of plush raw tuna fanned out and drizzled with a spicy-limey Thai sauce with cilantro. Simple, yes, but with great panache and impact. Same went for the slices of yellowtail garnished sparely with jalapeno and tart yuzu sauce ($13.95). I could make a satisfying meal of a couple of these, perhaps followed by a bowl of tempura udon ($14.95), fat wheat noodles cradled in homey chicken broth and topped with a passel of tempura-battered shrimp.
This last caused me to muse on the paucity of noodle houses in these parts. Perhaps in response to the economy in the past several years (remember, noodles are cheap), other American cities have opened emporia of soba, somen, rice stick and ramen, one-pot meals with surprisingly sophisticated range (seriously, in New York people talk about "artisanal ramen"). The Lemon Grass has a bit of this with yakisoba, udon and egg noodle soups. It would be interesting to see what would happen if these offerings expanded.
The Lemon Grass may be able to nab market share with its range of signature rolls and familiar Thai curries, but sometimes the swiftest way is to see a culinary hole and fill it.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.