A little new Culture and a lot of old Lemongrass

An Asian restaurant chain in Tel Aviv has tried to up its ante – but not enough.

Pot sticker_521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Pot sticker_521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The recently opened (five months ago) Culture by Lemongrass represents a bold effort to rebrand the veteran (15+ years) chain of Asian takeout joints, mostly known for making inexpensive, greasy noodles. Looking to branch out, Lemongrass has launched the Culture, which at first glance appears to be a nice and more upscale Asian restaurant on Ibn Gvirol, well designed with clean, fashionable neutral tones.
Upon further inspection, however, it appears that the lion’s share of the Lemongrass take-out menu has remained at the Culture, only this time served on porcelain plates to a seated clientele. There are also dessert options and a bar.
For appetizers, my dining companion and I sampled the egg rolls (NIS 21), which were light and crispy and superior to the doughy fried fare served at most Israeli Asian restaurants. We also tried the chicken spring rolls (NIS 21), which were good but did not hold up well, as the rice wrapping began to fall apart by the third bite.
Next came the papaya salad (NIS 19), which I was especially looking forward to, having ordered it at almost every eatery during my trip to Southeast Asia and loving the mix of sweet and spicy flavors. At Culture, I was served a bowl of julienned carrots and spicy pepper – sans papaya. We were told that that was the gimmick, that the papaya salad has no papaya.
As a bit of Dadaist performance art or a prank, the “papaya salad that wasn’t” has potential; but as a menu offering, it borders on false advertising of a bizarre nature. I will give them credit, though; the salad did actually work nicely with carrots and would make a nice substitute for papaya, which I imagine is how this dish came about. After all, papaya is harder to find year-round than carrots.
Next came the Szechuan noodles (NIS 46), a chicken and mushroom noodle dish that did include both chicken and mushrooms, allaying our fears that at the Culture by Lemongrass, nothing is what it seems.
The dish was passable, even tasty but, again, it did not represent any substantial divergence from the original Lemongrass offerings.
The house Mongolian beef special sounded enticing, but like the other chef specials, it was unavailable for reasons that remain unclear. We ordered chicken satay (NIS 44) instead and were greeted with a plate of five enormous chicken skewers covered in a thick brown peanut sauce. Unlike a usual satay, the cuts of chicken were thick, plump, a little chewy, and at least one was not entirely done.
The restaurant also has a number of sushi offerings. We ordered a couple of standard eight-piece rolls (NIS 19), which we did not finish. The sushi rolls looked – and tasted – homemade. And I’m not knocking homemade sushi. When it’s done well, it can be very good. But this was amateur hour, and that is where Culture’s desire to go pan-Asian shows its greatest weaknesses. The restaurant is trying to be all things to all people, but like the flipside of trying to do one or two things well, it’s better to do a few things not well than to do everything Asian not well.
Desserts were the standard passion fruit cake, lemon pie and tiramisu.
The lemon pie was very good with a strong lemony flavor. For some reason, in a first maybe anywhere, the slice of lemon meringue pie was served piping hot. I can’t say it failed, though I still wouldn’t microwave a lemon pie before serving it.
Culture by Lemongrass does have several things going for it. It is the only kosher Asian restaurant in Tel Aviv, where many restaurants aren’t, and it will be open and hametz-free throughout Pessah. Haifa-born owner Tom, 27, says it has a devoted clientele. In fact, the restaurant was fairly busy for a Monday night.
Culture by Lemongrass is a good concept in theory: Take a popular Asian takeout brand and improve it to an affordable and higher-quality sitdown restaurant. In the case of the Culture, however, it seems that they have kept the same product and only added a sit-down atmosphere and a limited beverage and dessert menu.
The Culture is like its parent company; decent and passable – but don’t take a date you’re looking to impress.
The writer was a guest of the restaurant.
Culture by Lemongrass Kosher Ibn Gvirol 22, Tel Aviv. (03) 609- 5454 Open Sunday to Thursday 11:30 a.m.-midnight. Saturday evening from motzei Shabbat to midnight.