Ten years ago, when I visited the first Lemongrass Asian Bistro on Atlantic Avenue in Delray Beach, I remember being as pleased with the variety of Asian flavors as I was with the stripped-down decor.
Now comes the Sea South East Asian Kitchen, which takes the pan-Asian menu from Lemongrass but adds much more Chinese and even a few Malaysian dishes. But why aren't there more Vietnamese and Indonesian dishes on the menu? There's less emphasis on sushi, and the food is served in a handsome dining room that once housed the Italian restaurant Cucina Mio.
The long, thin space spills onto the patio. The main dining room is a study in neutral beige and brown. Tufted banquettes give the place a bit of bistro elegance. Backlit frames and drapes, that I'm not even sure cover the windows, add a visual kick. Wooden armchairs and a big grouping of pendant lights make this restaurant look anything but Asian. There's not a pagoda, dragon or paper lantern to be found.
Despite all the restaurant's style, service can be a bit disconnected. Servers are mostly attentive, but can be as curt as morning-shift coffee-shop cashiers.
The Sea's menu, like the one at Lemongrass, is huge. So huge, that our table of four could have used a pencil and paper to keep track of what we wanted to order.
We settled on four small plates, including the Viet Roll ($8), deep-fried rice paper wraps filled with pork, mushrooms and water chestnuts. Like everything here, it's gorgeously served with a basket of fresh vegetables and cucumber sauce.
Lobster shrimp shumai ($9) were as good as any authentic dim sum. Curry puffs ($7) filled with ground chicken, onions and sweet potatoes were light on filling, but otherwise delicious. The real standout, even for someone who doesn't love scallops, were the Sea Scallops ($15), tamarind glazed, seared and served with mango salad and lime dressing.
We couldn't resist one roll, Sex on the Moon ($13), which features shrimp tempura, asparagus, avocado, scallions, eel and masago. There are some real pros making rolls here, and they skillfully create a perfect ratio of rice to other ingredients. For a restaurant that doesn't want to focus on sushi, the Sea offers endless rolls and fresh sashimi.
If you like soup for dinner, the Sea offers four big bowls ($10-$14), including spicy lemongrass soup with rice noodles, seafood, tomato, scallions and mushrooms in lemongrass-scented broth.
The Sea fried rice ($13) is a standout with its combination of egg, chicken, beef, shrimp, scallop, calamari rings, onions, scallions and peas. It's old-fashioned and wonderful.
Lobster pad thai ($28) was generously adorned with lightly battered lobster tail that gets mixed, in classic fashion, with rice noodles, eggs, scallions, bean sprouts, peanut and shallots. Crispy duck ($22) is marinated and fried until crisp. We ordered it with ginger sauce, but it can also be had with garlic sweet chili or Thai basil sauce. It's the Sea's version of Peking duck, served sliced.
Blue River shrimp ($23) featured marinated grilled shrimp topped with a tamarind reduction, shallots, scallions and tempura bok choy.
Years ago, Asian food in the United States was pretty much defined by Chinese. Now that we've been educated in Thai curries and the ways of sushi, the Sea is one-stop eating.
the Sea South East Asian Kitchen
16950 Jog Road, Delray Beach
Hours: Lunch weekdays, dinner daily
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Beer and wine
Sound level: Moderate
Outside smoking: No
For kids: Highchairs
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Free lot