Stories are everywhere at Lemongrass. In the paintings on the walls that are gifts from patrons. In the framed images of rural Vietnam. And in the various toy scooters that accent tables. Scooters are ubiquitous in Vietnam, so I assume its a symbolic gesture. But Gillian Watt, co-owner of Lemongrass, tells me it’s a bit of an inside joke.
”Alan has wanted a Vespa for many years,” she says. “We can’t afford one yet, so I buy little Vespas for him instead.”
The “Alan” that she is referring to is her husband, Alan Hoang, chef and co-owner of Lemongrass. At the moment, he is demonstrating the making of goi, a deceptively simple, layered salad comprising julienned carrots and cucumber, shredded cabbage, a garnish of various accoutrements (pickled daikon, basil, cilantro, fried shallots, peanuts, and sesame seeds), and topped with a dressing of fish sauce.
He plates one for me and I am immediately entranced both by the simplicity of ingredients and by the complexity of textures. It is light, invigorating, and, as Hoang jokes, waistline friendly.
This levity is typical of most of the food from Northern Vietnam, where Hoang’s family is from. Their pho, for example, is characterized by a very simple broth with basic ingredients and spices. In the North, less is more, says Watt. If you’re used to a spicier, more heavy-handed repertoire of Vietnamese food, you may have to shift your expectations. But trust me, it will be worth it.
Hoang has no formal culinary training, but the idea for the restaurant, which opened in 2012, stemmed from a deep tether to the flavors of home, a need for Hoang to stay connected with the Vietnam he and his family fled in 1975.
”I love cooking for my family and friends,” says Hoang, who spent his high school years in Augusta, ”but this allows me to share my heritage with a larger community. When people enjoy our food, it makes me happy. It motivates me.”
As parties of two and four and at one point a party of 12 stream in, two teen-aged girls make their way past the 32-seat dining room. They head for the kitchen, tie on aprons, and join Hoang on the line. This has been, for the most part, the anatomy of the Lemongrass kitchen: Hoang works with one other cook for lunch service, and then for dinner he is joined by two cooks, usually high school students from Mt. Ararat High School, where Watt teaches social studies. During year one, they hired a student who enjoyed the experience so much that word got around. Ever since then a stream of juniors and seniors have come to learn the ropes.
”When they arrive, they don’t necessary have the skills that I need, but skills can be taught,” says Hoang. “These students are so disciplined, so motivated to help, and they learn quickly.”
Hoang and Watt have been extremely mindful of cultivating a cooperative environment where everyone is part of the same team. The kitchen staff is trained on every aspect of the kitchen so that everyone feels a sense of accountability for the entire operation. This back-of-the-house harmony translates directly into the food.
A staff member tells me that the most popular dish is, unsurprisingly, the pho. But I happen to be on a banh mi kick, so I forgo the pho for a beef banh mi. Theirs is cleverly restrained and rounded out by cilantro, cucumbers, daikon, and a molasses-tinged barbecue sauce. Among other standout dishes are the shrimp canh chua, a tamarind and pineapple soup that is not as tart as other versions I’ve had, but with flavors that compose the perfect winter comfort food.
Watt lets me try one of their recent menu additions, banh xeo, a savory crepe made with egg, rice flour, mung beans, bean sprouts, onions, and scallions. It is served with leaves of lettuce that you use to wrap the filling and then dip into fish sauce. As with the other dishes, there is a nice interplay between textures: here, the delicate crepe is offset by the crunch of the bean sprouts.
Their pho-inspired gelato, flavored with ginger, star anise, and cinnamon, is made by Gelato Fiasco and pairs nicely with fried bananas, which are coated with a batter of rice flour, deep fried, and topped with syrup and sesame seeds. Here, too, the flavors are refreshingly light.
“We’re not doing anything innovative or progressive,” Hoang says. ”These are simple, family recipes that I love and have been cooking for many years.”
Hopefully for many more years to come.
Lemongrass | 212 Maine St. | Brunswick | 207.725.9008 | lemongrassme.com