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Love in the Time of Teriyaki

Joe Rocco

I used to know a bunch of gay South Florida ladies who took biyearly treks to Atlanta in search of brides. Fed up with Palm Beach slim pickin's, they'd pack up the car with a week's worth of bait (massage oil, patchouli-scented candles, CK One cologne, Ani DiFranco tapes) and hit every girl bar in Hotlanta until they'd netted at least one pretty fish. I kid you not: They'd return home like a victorious army of booty-hauling barbarians, new dames stuffed into the back seat along with the Amstel Light empties.

I was relating this story to my friend Gigi over a couple of glasses of Gewürztraminer and a bowl of jade-green edamame at Lemon Grass Asian Bistro in downtown Delray Beach recently. Fabulous-looking, intelligent, and savvy, Gigi has been single for as long as I've known her. Like most of the unattached, she endures the unsolicited advice, obnoxious probing, and gratuitous blind-date fixing of friends who want to get her permanently yoked. And like most singles, she gets around, leading a glamorous, carefree existence that we married people would like to see nipped in the bud ASAP. Lemon Grass is Gigi's favorite restaurant in Delray, partly because it's the kind of place where you can show up solo, snag a sidewalk table or a seat at the bar, and appear sexiliciously independent and open to possibilities. The attractive staff — hip Asian kids in their 20s with spiky haircuts and great jewelry — greets you with solicitous warmth whether you're a table of one or ten.

Lemon Grass is also a great venue for anybody who knows the value of a nickel. Despite the big-city glamour packed into its long, narrow space — very New York by way of Tokyo — its priciest entrée tops out at $23; scrumptious rolls hover around $8; and beautifully prepared curries, chicken, and fish dishes range from $13 to $18. That you can slurp your soup from jewel-colored bowls under the oversized photographs of Asia, grooving to a little house music, is unheard-of at these prices.

I've been kvetching for years that South Florida is the most expensive place to eat dinner in the whole United States. Friends have scoffed, readers have pooh-poohed, but just this week, I was finally vindicated by the new South Florida edition of Zagat: Palm Beach County isn't just the most expensive place to dine in America; it's one of the most expensive in the world. The average cost of a meal is higher in Tokyo, Paris, and London, but you'd be hard-pressed to push your tab to such stratospheric levels in other cities. And — get this — the cost of our meals out has risen 6 percent in the past year, double the rest of the country.

Has quality followed this rapacious price gouging? Hardly. And there's no 800 number you can call to report an overcooked filet mignon au poivre that costs more than your monthly utilities bill. Fort Lauderdale/Palm Beach is still home of the hustle: You rarely get what you pay for. You can practically smell the greed wafting from these trendy open kitchens: Your sauce is likely to come from a humble Sysco mix, brewed by kitchen slaves, while your restaurateur is busy poring over the plans for his new McMansion on the beach.

So a restaurant that can provide a lot of eye candy — both masculine and feminine — plus specialties like marinated baby octopus, stir-fried jade noodles, and stone-seared sashimi at reasonable prices ought to be celebrated and revered. I'm here to do just that.

The menu at Lemon Grass verges on gigantic, but it's easy to navigate. And unlike other multipage menus, it hangs together beautifully and never loses focus, effortlessly drawing out Vietnamese, Chinese, Hawaiian, Thai, and Japanese threads. There are two categories of appetizer — the pan-Asian fusion and the ones from the sushi bar. Through three visits and a dozen different plates, I've made barely a dent. From the sushi bar, a gorgeously designed plate of tuna tataki ($9), arranged like a Chinese fan, is state-of-the-art — just barely seared, sliced as thin as rectangles of rose-colored silk. Scattered with scallions, the tuna gets a faint crunch from sesame seeds and masago; it's served with homemade ponzu sauce for a salty/citrusy complement. A plate of tiny, whole baby octopus ($7), slathered with a sweet and rich, deep-red marinade, is delicious and exotic. The mollusks' tender, fat little heads sort of pop when you chew them; this visceral effect takes some getting used to, but they're wonderful.

We also put away, for starters, delicate, Vietnamese-style summer rolls ($4), a perfectly balanced ode to the season filled with fresh basil, mint, tiny shrimp, cool lettuce, and slender, transparent vermicelli in a sticky-soft, rice-paper wrapper. Dense soybeans pushed from their thick pods (steamed edamame, $4) provide textural and color contrast. The only appetizer we didn't totally adore was the soft-shell kara crab ($8), probably the Asian variety, which are always pre-frozen. These are coated in panko and deep fried, and they tasted dehydrated and not particularly meaty.

Soups are superb. Wonton soup with asparagus ($4) floats a puck-sized, homemade chicken dumpling in a flavorful, clear broth with curly Napa cabbage and hefty green asparagus spears. Tom yum soup ($5) may be one of the best versions I've ever tasted: mushrooms, tomatoes, scallions, and either chicken or shrimp in a pale-orange broth fragrant with lemongrass and coconut milk. The balance of sweet and salty, tart and creamy is faultless. I also attempted the meal-sized "seafood with spicy lemongrass noodle soup" ($12) one day at lunch. It came in a ruby-hued plastic bowl big enough to execute a swan-dive into, and this ocean-flavored microsystem supported shrimp, scallops, enormous fleshy mussels, tilapia filets, crab, and chewy rounds of squid. The soup starts out bland, and the mussels are completely unmanageable, but as you eat, the flavors condense, and by the time you come to the bottom layer of rice noodles, they've greedily sucked up the flavors of shellfish, scallions, mushrooms, tomatoes, and lemongrass.

I love the idea of duck soup; Lemon Grass makes its version with marinated Peking duck, watercress, celery, toasted garlic, and rice noodles for $10; the only thing missing is Groucho's mustache. There's also a classic Vietnamese beef pho for $9.

Actually, it is possible to rack up quite a bill at Lemon Grass, because the food is so good, you can't stop eating it. We ordered a slew of rolls. A sashimi-style roll ($9) sounds like a kitchen-sink concoction, but it's really fresh and subtle. Tuna, salmon, hamachi, shrimp, kampyo (strips of dried gourd that have been softened), tamago, asparagus, scallions, and cucumber are rolled together, and the result is a colorful bouquet of flavors — creamy, pale-yellow egg; meltingly soft tuna and salmon; crunch of asparagus and cucumber. This lightness of touch makes a nice counterpoint to two heavenly, fat-laden rolls — a green dragon roll ($10) is beautifully presented with tiny overlapping slivers of avocado mimicking the beast's green scales. It's stuffed with shrimp tempura, cream cheese, and tempura flakes, and it's so rich, you could eat it for dessert. The lemongrass roll, an inside-out beauty, contains salmon tempura, eel, cream cheese, and avocado; it's studded with tangerine-hued fish eggs. An "extremely rainbow roll" ($12), made with Alaska king crab, cream cheese, and avocado and topped with raw fish, presents the full spectrum of rainbow colors — it's missing only the pot of gold. Next time, I'll try the "lobster monster roll," which at $19 feels luxuriously decadent.

The only entrée we were able to swallow after all this was Mama's lobster ($23). A butterflied Florida spiny lobster tail is sautéed with ginger, onions, bell pepper, shiitake mushrooms, scallions, and cashew nuts. Gigi thought the meat was too dry, and I had some difficulty extracting it from its shell, but the flavors were irresistible. Other entrées include lemongrass duck ($16); "boca shore" ($16), a steamed seabass with spices; and Hawaiian dancer ($15), a combo plate of scallops, chicken, pineapple, carrots, snow peas, and tamarind sauce. A full lineup of curries, stir fries, and salads, including smoked salmon, crispy duck, and papaya, rounds out the menu.

We never felt rushed as we wended our way through the dinner menu and the extensive wine list, which offers interesting choices by the glass as well as the bottle, and a full range of sakes. A fun and delish dish of ice cream balls wrapped in rice-flour dough for dessert is called Japanese mochi, although it's nothing like traditional mochi made with rice and sweet bean curd. This concoction was actually developed by an American husband and his Japanese wife — you can buy it frozen at Costco. With a glass of sweet Thai iced coffee, it'll definitely get you buzzed.

By the end of the meal, we still hadn't gotten Gigi married off, but we'd made progress. We'd sat so long, she'd had plenty of time to get noticed. Why drive ten hours to Atlanta when you can walk a few blocks to Lemon Grass? And the menu here is as various as so many romantic possibilities. Love is a many-splendored fusion.

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