Sunday, June 17, 2007

Everybody Must Get Lei'd

I've always less-than-secretly fantasized about being some kind of reviewer...movies, preferably, but travel and dining sound pretty great, too. Sadly, I'd be stymied in the dining arena by the unfortunate fact that I'm a picky eater! And not only picky, but with an "I'm a fifth grader from the Midwest" culinary bent.

Nevertheless, I love to tell people about new restaurants I visit, especially on vacation, but sometimes in dear old San Diego, too. So here is my first official blog restaurant review!

I was a little bummed I didn't discover Lei Lounge myself. After all, I devour all the local restaurant reviews in the U-T and the Reader, and keep my ear to the ground for word-of- mouth gushing. So I wince as I admit that I might never have discovered this kitschy little gem, in the footloose-and-fancy-free neighborhood of my youth, had I not attended Lynne's birthday party on Saturday night.

Luckily, I don't like to miss a dear friend's birthday party, and after procurement of a babysitter and a little extra effort in dressing (ooooh, earrings and lipstick! some gel in my hair!) I was off with David for an adventuresome evening. Even the name itself--Lei Lounge--filled me with girlish longing.

Lei Lounge is wedged between the venerable Bourbon St. bar and El Zarape burrito joint in downtown University Heights (a downtown comprised of two blocks of Park Blvd. between Monroe and Adams, yet jam-packed with gems) and has a slick, glass front that screams "hip" and "young." Entering, our aural faculties were assailed by ear-splitting house music, so loud I literally could not hear what Lynne was saying about our table when standing six inches from her face. Not my demographic, I surmised. A quick survey of the bar crowd revealed a lot of youthful, tan skin and trendy Empire tops, plus a wall of water. Later, Lynne's husband Grant mentioned how much he likes the bar, but had I stayed there longer, I would have spent the evening screaming "What?" and needing to pee.

What Lynne was trying to tell us was that five members of our party were required before access to our table, but luckily Kay was hard on our heels and we were briskly escorted through an outdoor courtyard to a white leather-sheathed cabana to the left of the teeming center. I gasped with delight at the set-up--a cushioned banquette arranged like a "C" complete with throw pillows, a low coffee-style table, and our own personal heat lamp. Diving onto the cushion, I glanced up to see diners across from us seated around an actual ring of fire doubling as a table--the effect was lovely, though I wondered if revelers in their cups ever get singed in a moment of inattention. Above the courtyard, a wide, high wall reflected, with increasing drama as night fell, an ambient video presentation that alternately put me in mind of kaleidoscopes, time-lapse flower growth, and gynecological exams.

The mood was wild and loud, facilitated by a vast selection of fruity imbibements with cutesy names, all served in sleek, round glasses with no stems. Within seconds, our fabulously flamboyant waiter Kevin appeared ("It's our anniversary today," Lynne told him, at which he shouted "How many years? Or is it weeks? Honey, I'm a homo--weeks ARE years to me") and we quizzed him about his favorite cocktails. "Well, I like the Tokyo Iced Tea," he said, "But I can stagger home afterwards." Thus forewarned, we each chose something slightly less potent but no less delish. My Lei Signature Martini combined pomegranate and cherry juices and flavored vodka, with the result of making me want to slurp it down with great haste.

While waiting for our other guests, we ordered a couple appetizers for the table. Kevin explained that pretty much the whole menu is tapas-style, eminently shareable, and there are lots of choices. The theme seems to be Asian/Polynesian fusion, with a comfort food flair (e.g. Cheese Steak Spring Rolls and Crab Mac & Cheese) Even more fun, some of the combinations are served as bento boxes, with four or more disparate flavors and textures artfully presented in a partitioned lacquer box.

We started with the edamame (enjoying a recent surge of popularity in local restaurants) and the sweet potato fries with raspberry dipping sauce. The edamame were cooked perfectly crisp, and arrived warm and nicely salted. But the sweet potato fries were a revelation--delicately sprinkled with powdered sugar, fluffy and ethereal, with the sweetness of fresh yams. And though the dip sounded weird and looked even weirder (kind of like salad dressing) it was absolutely yum on the fries.

More friends arrived, and several of us moved to a second round of drinks. We put in our orders for entrees, but many of us chose to share. Kevin brought a metal contraption that put me in mind of a cupcake tower--when we were done with our little plates, we stacked them on the rungs to make room on the table. The kitchen sends out dishes as they are ready, so everything came to the table piping hot and fresh, in no particular order. That was fine with me. The mood in the courtyard, from which we were partially protected, buzzed with almost manic glee. Many of the tables contained large groups, all dressed to the nines, snapping photos of each other and shrieking with laughter. The firepits twinkled and the video wall glowed. I sat up straight on my cushion (at 5'4", I was hamstrung by not being able to lean back unless I wanted to plunk my feet in the food) and was able to imagine for a moment that I was one of the chic gals from Sex and the City, or part of Paris Hilton's posse, only seconds before being immortalized by Us Weekly. Considering the low glamour quotient of my life these days, it was a mighty fine feeling indeed.

Our entrees did not disappoint. David and I shared the Kobe mini-burgers, not all that mini ("These are the size of the ones you make us at home!" he laughed) and the trio of tacos with steak, chicken and mahi, all with different sauces. Grant let me stick a fork in his Lobster Pad Thai, which was scrumptiously peanut-y. Lynne offered me some of her plump, fluffy crab cake, Crab cakes I do not do. Across the table, Gil received a plate of frites as beautiful as any in France, no wider than matchsticks, gloriously tangled in a stack nearly a foot high, with a spicy sauce on the side. "Kevin!" I called. "Another plate of those, please!"

There had been talk of hitting Extraordinary Desserts afterwards (as Seinfeld would say, not that there's anything wrong with that) but then Kevin asked if we wanted to hear about the desserts. "There's dessert?" someone asked, almost dumbfounded. It seemed our cup runneth over. He started rattling off various confections, but my mind screeched to a halt when I heard "House-made mini-donuts with caramel, chocolate and strawberry dipping sauces." Hold the phone! Everyone pretended they weren't going to eat any, but I sensed there were liers among us. We also tried to order an insane-sounding apple dumpling built around an entire baked apple, but they were sold out. Small wonder. The donuts, though (and 10 forks were out like a shot as soon as Kevin placed them in front of us) were a sensation, hot and sugary outside and fluffy inside, though it was the dipping sauces that put them over the top.

Alas, we all turned into very full pumpkins at the stroke of two hours (well, Kevin looked the other way for an additional half-hour) because private cabanas in a restaurant where the food is actually good don't come without a price. In this instance, the price is spelled out on the website, and gently reiterated by the servers: your reservation guarantees the cabana for two hours, and then, with a tinge of regret, our merry party made way for the next band of celebrants. Luckily, my fortune says that there will be more Lei Lounge in my future.


Anonymous said...

Sounds FANTASTIC! Wish I could go with you guys on the next trip. :) Lix

Anonymous said...

Where friends go?

Jess said...

Sounds like Lynn's party was a blast! Sorry we missed it, maybe another time.

Anonymous said...

I want Lei Lounge...teeeoooooo!