One of the pleasures of ethnic dining is the lure of the exotic: unusual flavors and textures coupled with an ambiance that transports us from the quotidian. For the duration of the meal we can imagine ourselves in some other place—somewhere that’s not here.
And I did feel transported when my companion and I walked into Lime Leaf in Hendersonville. But not to Old Siam. Lime Leaf is definitely not The King and I revisited. That’s not to say that it lacks cultural ambiance; the décor is elegantly Asian, replete with a rich dark cinnabar and ebony color scheme, long-tasseled chandeliers, softly gurgling fountains and blissful Buddha images.
The overall sensibility is urban upscale: chic, contemporary and sophisticated. I half expected to step back outside and see a line of yellow taxicabs at the curb. Co-owners chef David Cheng and the lovely Kanas Lam (who designed the interiors) clearly know what they’re doing. They’ve built a solid reputation for fine dining with their flagship Lime Leaf restaurant in Spartanburg and have brought that expertise to bear in this new venture. It’s an eatery worthy of any major metro area in both the aesthetic and the fare.
In that cosmopolitan spirit, I began the meal with a “Water Lily” ($6.95), one of the intriguing offerings on the extensive Martini menu (which also includes a “Green Tea” variation). This frothy, blue concoction of Absolut, pineapple juice, sour mix and Curacao was an ideal apéritif and made me feel rather stylish as I sipped.
Taking heed of the visual aid of the pepper chart of spiciness on the menu, we opted for low intensity starters. The Fresh Rolls ($3.95) lived up to their name, arriving on a leaf-shaped plate decorated with a carved-carrot flower. The wrappers were moist and yielding, stuffed with bright, crunchy julienne vegetables accented with cilantro and petite shrimp and the plum dipping sauce was divine; not too syrupy and slightly tart.
The Tom Kha Gai soup ($3.95) was light, with the bite of lemongrass and featured perfectly prepared chicken and straw mushrooms but it had less of the body and coconut milk flavor than I am accustomed to. As an appetizer, it served beautifully to cleanse the palate, but for an entrée, I would find it less than satisfying.
In anticipation of our main dishes, my intrepid companion and I considered ordering the Thai wines, available in both red and white varietals. Jo, our accommodating waitress, offered to provide us with a tasting. Aside from the novelty factor, neither seemed to add anything to the party. Instead, we accepted Jo’s recommendation of the Jekel Riesling — an astute suggestion. Crisp and not too sweet, it balanced the more intense flavors of the food nicely.
Our chosen main courses proved to be most agreeable. My companion opted for the Emerald Shrimp ($15.95), a corona of deftly steamed broccoli encasing a mound of succulent grilled shrimp and marvelously crunchy onions and carrots, all swimming in a ruby-red sweet sauce that, once again, showed the proper restraint. Thinly-sliced blood oranges surrounded this visual masterpiece, a perfect acidic complement to the sauce.
My Panang Curry with chicken ($10.95) was creamy without being too thick, laden with tender, white meat and topped with plenty of vivid green sweet peppers. Initially, I thought the seasoning to be a bit on the modest side and asked Jo to bring out the “spice tray,” a selection of pepper blends with which to augment the heat of the dish. Fortunately, I didn’t immediately avail myself; the heat gradually revealed itself to be just right. Still, I appreciated the opportunity to customize.
After a dessert of Mango Sticky Rice ($6.95) — a pleasing contrast of warm, sweet brown rice over cool chunks of mango topped with a coconut milk sauce and a generous glass of Fuki Plum Wine ($5.99) — we decided to explore the upper level.
The balcony area features a full-service bar, intimate casual seating, a wine room outfitted for “dinner for two” and an exquisite private dining room all beautifully appointed in Ms. Lam’s signature style.
No, Lime Leaf is not a trip to Bangkok — it’s a sojourn into a graceful, relaxed and very accessible realm where traditional and modern sensibilities are skillfully fused. Personally, I can’t wait to go back.