January 3, 2019

Chef Raki Urbina, Corporate Chef and Managing Director, Laguna Group, stresses that Lemon Grass is not a fusion restaurant lest customers expect to sit down to a Thai-Vietnamese or Vietnamese-Thai repas. Lemon Grass is a Thai restaurant. Lemon Grass is also a Vietnamese restaurant.

Warm smiles greet guests at the door of Lemon Grass

After we make that clear, enter the cool, modern interiors and soak in the soothing ambiance in your temporary respite for the day. Complete with fresh orchid flowers on the table. First, start with the refreshing signature drink Citrus and Herb blend of orange, lemon, lime, mint and cucumber slices. Then, go over their extensive menu. The menu will show you popular Vietnamese staples such as goi cuon (summer rolls), banh mi (a popular meat and vegetable sandwich), and the ca phe sua dua or the Vietnamese coffee. Of course, Thailand offers its pad thai, the refreshing pomelo crabstick salad, som tam or the spicy green papaya salad, and kaeng curry thalay or seafood red curry.

The refreshing spring roll Goi Cuon

Lemon Grass at Ayala Malls Capitol Central is the first branch outside Cebu. Cebu has two. The first Lemon Grass restaurant opened in 2005 and has gained a steady following. Established under the Laguna Group that brought us its flagship resto Cafe Laguna, CEO Julita Urbina (who is originally from Laguna) saw the niche for a Vietnamese restaurant and the Urbina family felt that having Vietnamese alongside Thai cuisine would be a right move.

Chef Raki, Mrs. Urbina’s son who trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, observed that these two Asian cuisines share 95% common ingredients but the amazing part is that these cuisines manage to be distinct from each other. “I was fascinated with how Thai and Vietnamese cooking shared many ingredients but differed very much in taste,” Chef Raki noted. He should know. His CIA studies enabled him to meet other chefs from Vietnam and Thailand at the prestigious Worlds of Flavor Conference. His interest in the possibility of featuring these cuisines in a future restaurant started here. Chef Raki eventually immersed himself into learning the rudiments of Thai cooking with the help of a mentor connected to the Thai Royal Family, and the Urbinas’ adopted son Andrew Boongird. With Mr. Boongird, Chef Raki’s immersion included going marketing everyday. The family’s friendships with some Vietnamese resulted in a cultural exchange including immersion once more in the cuisine. Then, in 2005, Cebu welcomed the first Lemon Grass.

Corporate Chef Raki Urbina, and his mother CEO of Laguna Group Mrs. Julita Urbina

Lemon Grass is real street food of both countries. Street food in such tony surroundings? Why not street food! “Cafe Laguna”, Mrs. Urbina said, serves everyday Filipino food elegantly plated and this caused a customer to remark “you gave dignity to our culture.”

The Laguna Group is a company that advocates family business, so, here’sLemon Grass at Ayala Malls Capitol Central, one family with another – the Urbinas of Cebu and the Garbanzos (Albert Garbanzos, Amy Garbanzos Montinola and Capt. Benjamin Montinola) of Negros Occidental – the first branch in Western Visayas which opened on December 14, 2018. Experienced two cuisines in one restaurant is possible. The gastronomic experience can be had in Bacolod City at the ground floor along Gatuslao Street. Lemon Grass is open from 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. daily.

The Negrense Bloggers with Mrs. Amy Garbanzos Montinola (center)