We sat outdoors beneath a spreading blue sky streaked orange by noctilucent clouds that defied the coming darkness, the image framed by torch light and billowing white canopies. It was quite a scene and I wish a scene were enough. But a good scene alone does not mean good dining.
Lei Lounge is not the easiest place to walk into. The postmodern glass front on Park Boulevard opens into a small-ish bar with seating for 40 or so patrons. To make it to the patio dining area behind the bar, a diner arriving when the bar's full must be willing to walk through a gaggle of urban hipsters drinking vanilla berry mojitos. My date and I soldiered forth.
We found our host, eventually, around the corner from the bar's back door. Silly me, I was looking for a uniform. If I wanted to sit down, I should have looked for the guy in a T-shirt and jeans standing around the corner. Anyway, he seated us. He seated us at a two-top adjacent to a four-top full of strangers, right in the middle of the walkway. If I leaned left, I'd have been in the lap of a pretentious businessman; right, I'd have been trampled by waitstaff. I sat straight up.
My date took advantage of the Tuesday-through-Thursday half-price signature drinks from 5 to 9 p.m. For $3.50, she had a greentini, a blend of green tea, simple syrup, grapefruit and lemon juice, and, supposedly, some vodka. I asked the waiter for a nice Scotch. The bartender sent me a $9.50 Glenlivet on the rocks. Read that again-I'll wait.
All of the dishes at Lei are meant to be shared. I am relieved that the word "tapas" appears nowhere on the menu. That word grates on me. But whether you call them tapas, appetizers, hors d'oeuvres or snacky-poos, the dishes are small.
We started with the crab empanadas with borsin cream and green tomato salsa. Altogether, it was a serviceable dish. The crab was excellent and the tortilla casing was light and crisp. The salsa didn't blow my skirt up, but it wasn't bad.
Next we had the lobster tempura in Thai curry aioli. Now, just reading the name of that dish should be enough to make a diner wriggle. We're talking lobster, we're talking tempura, and we're talking curry. It might as well be a deep-fried orgasm, right? Well it's not. What it is, is $12 for five bite-sized lobster nuggets deep fried in a heavy breading, served with yellow mayonnaise smeared on a plate. I'm not sure what part of the lobster goes into the dish, but whatever it is, it's tough and it's tiny.
It was time for drinks. Ignorant of the cost of my Scotch (I didn't learn the truth until the bill came), I ordered another. My date had the poached pear and ginger daiquiri, a chick drink to be sure, but a mighty good one that. At $3.50, it was a great value and perfect for a summer's evening outdoors.
We moved on, muttering ugly things about shellfish and other arthropods, and ordered the mini Kobe beef burgers. Note to trendy diners: true Kobe beef is not exported from Japan. What purports to be Kobe beef in America is "Kobe-style" beef that comes from a cross between Japanese and American cattle. That is why our two-ounce burgers cost $4 apiece, a decent price. It matters not to me that they weren't real Kobe beef, nor that calling them such is kind of cheating. They were damn good anyway. They were seared well on the outside and nice and pink in the middle. With a light smear of Dijon mustard on them, they were the high point of the evening.
There are plenty of good things to say about Lei Lounge. For starters, the service is attentive and charming. Beyond that, it's not badly priced if you stay away from the Scotch. There is a table-side masseur (seriously) who will come around and rub your shoulders between courses. The place is permeated by an uncannily captivating aroma, and the patronage is generally agreeable (although I saw more than one butt crack winking up out of a pair of bedazzled denims that needed to be pulled up).
But the most accurate thing to say about Lei is that it is trendy. I am a trendophobe. I have almost no tolerance for trendiness of any kind. Thus, for me, dining at Lei Lounge is a bit like wearing a cell-phone earpiece or driving a hybrid car. I can see why it's popular, but I still don't like it. It has to do with my own bias, a bias that most diners don't share. For those of you unlike me, the best way to experience Lei Lounge would be to take a group of six and reserve one of the cabanas. The seating looks comfortable, and with a group that size, you could share eight or more reasonably priced dishes. If you're in the mood, it would make for a nice outing, but skip the lobster McNuggets.
Lei Lounge is open for dinner from 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, 3 to 10 p.m. on Saturday and 4 to 10 p.m. on Sunday. The bar stays open until 2 a.m. Prices range from $5 to $16.