Lemongrass
243 Royal College Street
Camden NW1 9LT
20/02/2011
Are you familiar with lordosis? Nooo, it’s not a Cambodian delicacy but an inward and sometimes uncomfortable curvature of the lower back. For this reason I don’t do trekking, or climbing, or cycling…especially on holiday. I like wheelie bags better than backpacks and when I travel I need a certain amount of “gadgets” that wouldn’t fit into a rucksack. But that’s another story, I guess. Anyway, apparently Cambodia attracts “the most intrepid travellers” who “cannot fail to be amazed by this magical, captivating, imposing land and its delicious cuisine”. I have never been to Cambodia and I wish I had the knowledge to say it’s all bullshit and the food is awful, but I can’t. But if you expect me to lick Lemongrass’s boots, I’m afraid I can’t do that either. Yes, it vaguely resembles a restaurant but if you pay attention you would TOO SOON realise:

1)It is the “usual suspect” take away in disguise;
2)Average age is 65, all regulars customers, dowdyish, hair not washed and clothes not changed since got back from Cambodia in 1973;
3)Waitress doing the washing up behind me and almost forgets to take off her pink rubber gloves when she brings the dishes to our table.

Thinking back, irritated and eager to leave are probably the words that best describe my feelings. Dear fellow bloggers: caring Chef Thomas, lovely Lemongrass…WHAT…?!? WHAAAAAT?!? Slow cook, slow service, soulless place. POINTLESS. SAD. Yes, I felt like I was in Cambodia but stuck in a tourist trap with the bus outside waiting to take us to the semi-precious stone factory where skilful hands carve…well, you get the picture. I guess the reviews I read were all from very hungry people whom, with a million miles under their feet, would find delicious even a piece of paper. At least we only paid £30 between the two of us. Oh yes, forgot to say what we had: Leek Cake, Cambodian soup with prawns (definitely king!) and pineapple, Buddhist cabbage, Lok Lak beef and steamed rice. No beer, no juice, just simple water. Cake drenched in oil. The soup was good, mildly spicy with a sweet kick, different from the ever-present sweet and sour flavour. Cabbage was good, simple, stir-fried. The Lok Lak was a pleasant surprise: tender, juicy, stir fried cubes of beef served with salad. Good, but not sure – as I read somewhere – that Lemongrass is worth a visit just for it. Rice, is rice. And water is water. Nothing else to add. Luckily, my date was charming, nice and patient and despite my moaning didn’t put me on the tourist coach when we left!

  • Food: 2.5
  • Ambience: 2
  • Service: 1.5
  • Value: 2.5
  • Overall: 2.12
Monica
We got back on the road after over a month’s hiatus due to me travelling too extensively to also pursue the mission. Monica found the place, it looked good on paper, other bloggers had said wonderful things about it; so off we went to a little street yards away from Camden tube station. There are no other proper Cambodians in London, so again it was a choice without choice, which is often the case in this mission.

The ambience was exactly as I had expected, that is to say a bit depressing but bearable, around average when compared to the kind of places we are finding in this mission. It is one small room with an open kitchen at the back, around 20 covers. Tiled floor, tired fittings and furniture, nice lighting which almost compensates and creates a good atmosphere.

Service, it pains to say it, was quite bad. I am always reluctant to criticise little cheap / family restaurants with one or two staff for bad service, I am almost afraid to offend someone. It tends to be not because they are rude or careless: it is almost invariably because they try hard but just have no clue how to do it. This one was no exception.

It took forever. The waitress would disappear for several minutes on end, I could see her working hard in the kitchen but her customers had no way of getting served or even ask for something in the meantime. The other waitress was absolutely oblivious of the half of the dining room she was not allocated to and could not be alerted for love or money. Monica started getting seriously impatient towards the end; she was not liking the experience as a whole and went to the counter to ask for the bill.
In fairness, the speed of service was hindered by the flow of takeaway orders and by the fact the kitchen is a one-man-band, with this middle aged Cambodian chef who basically runs the whole thing. This is impressive but the combination of dining room plus takeaways slows things down a bit too much.

Food. The leek fritters were tasty and juicy inside but badly fried, wet and heavy. The idea was good, the execution not so good.

Prawn and pineapple soup: this was delicious. It was an original, perfectly balanced blend of sweetness, acidity, and heat. The broth alone was to die for; the actual chunks of vegetable, fruit and beautiful huge prawns completed an excellent dish. Not sure how much of it is traditional Cambodian vs. the chef’s creation but the end result is remarkable.

Wok-fried fillet. This was another gem. The meat was quite high quality, like the prawns above, which in a simple restaurant like this is not always a given. It was cooked in little chunks with very gentle spices which gave it a stimulating, different taste whilst retaining all of the original taste of beef. Everything that was done to the meat accentuated its taste and improved it. It is beautiful to see spices used properly and not abused for once in a while.

Cabbage salad. Bland, too sweet. Did not like it.

All in all Cambodian cuisine, from what I have seen, is a subtler, gentler version of Thai with some quite unusual tastes for the European palate. Regarding this specific restaurant, the highlights were very good raw materials and good, moderate use of spices. The letdown was inconsistency: two great dishes, two not-so-good ones.

Value. We spent something like £30 and got an OK meal in an acceptably looking environment with bad service. My feeling is value for money was just above average.

  • Food: 3
  • Ambience: 2
  • Service: 1.5
  • Value: 3.5
  • Overall: 2.5
Edo
CAMBODIA