Restaurant News & Reviews

Restaurant Review: Buddha Lounge brings big city ambience (and food to match) to the Bluegrass

Korean tacos are a standout at Buddha Lounge, braised short rib served in a corn tortilla and served with Kim chi.
Korean tacos are a standout at Buddha Lounge, braised short rib served in a corn tortilla and served with Kim chi. mcornelison@herald-leader.com

Lexingtonians can’t seem to get their fill of raw fish, resulting in new sushi restaurants popping up with regularity. One of the newest is Buddha Lounge, tucked away on North Mill Street, downtown.

Having heard good things about it, a friend and I decided to check it out during a recent Friday happy hour (3 to 6 p.m., when drinks and a limited menu are discounted). We arrived around 5 p.m. and the restaurant was empty. “Uh oh,” I thought, if even happy hour prices can’t lure customers, this place probably won’t be around long.

I needn’t have worried. Just as happy hour was drawing to a close, the Buddha Lounge was filling up, and by 7 p.m., there wasn’t a table to be had. Which proves two things: you had better make a reservation for Friday night, and the food is so good (and reasonably priced) that people don’t have to come during happy hour to get a good deal.

First, the food. I love sushi, so sometimes I’m willing to overlook mediocre just to get my fix. Buddha Lounge is anything but mediocre. Based on my two visits, it’s a top drawer addition to the downtown dining scene.

While the sushi menu may be short on quantity, it’s long on quality, with fish so fresh it will please even the biggest sushi snob. My favorite was the spider roll ($9), a deep-fried soft shell crab with avocado and masaco (fish roe). Order it with a side of Gyoza —Japanese dumplings served with ponzu sauce and green onions ($6) — and you have a full meal.

The ponzu sauce — which has a delicate citrus flavor — is also used to enhance the Karaage, Japanese-style fried chicken ($8), which differs from our southern version in that it has a lighter breading.

Other non-sushi dishes which stand out are the sweet chili shrimp ($9) and the Korean taco ($10). The first has three large shrimp on a bed of Asian slaw, accompanied by a sweetish sauce that complements rather than distracts. Put together, the shrimp, slaw and sauce create a symphony of flavors that will have you licking your fingers — literally.

For my money, the Korean taco, braised short rib served in a corn tortilla and served with Kim chi, is the best thing I had. The flavors were so intense I was sure that a myriad of spices had been used to achieve it.

According to my waiter, that’s not the case. As he explained, the secret is in using the best beef, which is first put on a grill and seared; then baked in the oven and finally shredded and braised in a pot with soy sauce as the only added condiment.

On my second visit, I went for lunch and opted for the signature Bento box: soup, salad, rice and two small entrees, which they refer to as Asian tapas. Both the chili shrimp and Korean taco are among the entrees that can be ordered in the Bento box. At $9, this has to be one of the best bargains in the city.

Located in a lovingly renovated building dating to the early 1900s, there’s a cool, hip vibe to the Buddha Lounge’s décor. Seating is on two levels; there’s lots of exposed brick and an open kitchen where you can interact with the chef. A 30-foot bar dominates the upper level and adds a touch of sophistication, along with a respectable selection of bourbons and craft beers.

Service is friendly and enthusiastic, although at peak hours, it can be a bit slow. Even then, your server will frequently pop back and update you on your meal’s progress.

I am not a fan of unisex bathrooms, and the front entrance is a bit obscure. But with how well everything else is done, these small nitpicks seem almost unworthy of mentioning. As long as Buddha Lounge continues to do everything else as well as they’re doing it now, it promises to be a downtown staple for years to come.

Patti Nickell: pnickell13@hotmail.com.

Restaurant Review

Buddha Lounge

Address: 109 N. Mill St.

Phone: 859-523-4723

Online: Buddhaloungeky.com

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.–Thurs.; 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Fri.; 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Sat.; closed Sunday.

Payment: Major credit cards accepted

Other: No parking available

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