4622 Park Boulevard, University Heights
Lei Lounge has been generating a lot of buzz lately. Like last week's Confidential, it serves a summer-friendly menu of creative global tapas meant for sharing, along with a drink list of what I'd call "candy cocktails." You remember Ogden Nash's quip, "Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker." Today's hip bartenders combine the quick and the dandy into easy-drinking cocktails that appeal to the newly legal set.
Lei also serves up comfort with an underpinning of cool. In front, it's a minimalist-chic room with a faux-waterfall behind the bar, a dozen-plus barstools, and a few tables set around the room. But the real action is through the back door. On a generous-sized outdoor patio, groups of six or more cluster into thatch-roofed white-leather cabanas, each furnished with white-leather benches and a low table for grazing -- plus all the mod-cons: chandeliers, fans, heaters, speakers, and flat-panel monitors showing peaceful tropical scenes. The cabanas even have filmy white curtains that theoretically can be drawn for a bit of privacy, but nobody actually does. Smaller parties sit in the center of the patio at umbrella-shaded tables decorated with pink paper-flower leis or can lounge by the fire pits on a white-leather banquette in front of a well-tended garden wall. If it's chilly, the patio is warmed by heat stanchions and flaming metal tiki torches. The mood lights and video projections come on after darkness falls: Welcome to South Beach -- or is it Waikiki? -- or is it just spring break in Rosarito?
Maybe it's closest to a spiffed-up version of the latter. While the crowd encompasses all ages, the majority of patrons are those whose drinking licenses are still fresh and unwrinkled. The early-comers are waiting when the restaurant opens its door. As their friends arrive and join them, the volume grows raucous with cocktail-fueled hilarity. Some of the customers also wear loud fragrances. One young woman seated at the bar sported such a quantity of some shrieking "celebrity" floral (probably Liz Taylor's White Diamonds) that her scent KO'd us all the way out on the sidewalk.
Arriving with my partner and the Lynnester, we came not to party but to eat. Lei's menu ranges from small dishes for a couple or threesome to nibble on, up to medium-large plates that can be noshed by a group. The kitchen sizes many of the plates to match the number of people at the table -- a smart move that spares diners the dilemma of dividing a three-piece hors d'oeuvre into four portions. (You may still have to halve the pieces on the sampling plates.)
Although the menu lists 37 tapas plus nine starch side dishes, many choices offer only slight variations on a theme, e.g., coconut shrimp vs. coconut calamari, or pistachio-dusted mahimahi vs. pistachio-crusted squid. Three of Lei's main food groups are dumplings, skewers, and spring rolls -- all available either solo or grouped as samplings.
"Dumplings" are actually Japanese-style fried wontons. ("You can get them steamed if you prefer," said our waiter, making a sour face. As it turns out, the chef himself prefers them steamed, like Chinese dim sum.) The flavors lean China-ward: Fillings include lobster with a good soy-ginger dip, crab with garlic-oil dip, and shrimp with a gooey Southeast Asian sweet chili sauce. We chose the sampling, with two of each filling and all three sauces. Lynne and I liked the garlic-oil best (warm olive oil with a couple of whole roasted garlic cloves floating at the bottom of the cup), regardless of what filling it accompanied. My partner favored the soy-ginger. The shredded bulk lobster meat had little flavor, but the lobster filling was lively, seasoned with ginger and sesame oil. The shrimps were small but tasty, amended with tiny snips of chives. The crabmeat served is bland lump crab, which returned to haunt us in other dishes.
The most attractive-sounding skewer, of premium Kobe beef, was also disappointing: The ultra-thin slice of meat was cooked well-done and tough, coated with a slick of coconut sauce that added nothing. If you like Kobe, or want to find out if you do, you'd be better served by investing in the Kobe steak-frites, a grilled mini-steak that you can order rare. The chicken skewer is pounded breast coated with Indian-style curry sauce. If you order this solo (rather than in a sampling), it comes with basmati rice and sweet-pepper chutney. There's also a Thai chicken skewer with peanut sauce (that we didn't try) and an ahi tuna skewer.
Spring rolls with well-crisped wrappers are available in three flavors. Our favorite filling, Mongolian duck, is a sweet, mu-shu-like mixture of caramelized onion shreds, shiitake slivers, and julienned carrots, plus a few chunks of dryish duck confit. Alongside is a thick cherry-flavored dipping sauce. The veggie roll is stuffed with mushy cabbage and carrot shreds and is served with more of the sweet chili dip. The Philly cheesesteak roll -- well, that's what it is.
Our favorite dish fit none of the above categories. Seared sea scallops with curry cream sauce turned out to be fine-quality dayboat catch, exuding a lovely maritime aroma (an amazing bargain at $12). They arrived with crisped surfaces and translucent centers. The Madras curry powder in the sauce was mild, warm, with plenty of saffron (and no floor sweepings from the spice warehouse). The menu says that the dish has a garnish of candied ginger. It doesn't -- the chef later confessed that, with his kitchen slamming, he hasn't gotten around to making it yet.
When we ordered the pistachio-crusted calamari salad, the waiter warned us that the squid would be salty. We decided to take that chance. They proved saline, indeed, but for good reason -- the salt is deployed as a distinct flavor, not a habit, complementing the nuttiness of the ground pistachios. (Surprisingly, this was the only notably salty dish we sampled.) Crisp calamari sat atop a salad of fresh spring greens and ripe little pear tomatoes moistened by a mild miso dressing that worked just right with all the other flavors.