Review: Red Lantern

Apologies for the delay in getting my restaurant reviews up, as had been promised in my previous blog entry – it has been a crazy past few weeks!  I have a lot of time on my hands at the moment though so I will be blogging a bit more regularly now.

To start the food-ball rolling, I will begin with Luke Nguyen’s Red Lantern Restaurant in Surrey Hills, just outside the Sydney CBD.  For those of you who watch Masterchef Australia, you will know who Luke Nguyen is and/or have heard of his restaurant.

Being Malaysian/Asian, obviously I love Asian cuisine, but being very “Western” too, I enjoy European food as well.  What’s the best of both worlds?  Asian fusion cuisine!  And that’s what Red Lantern is all about.  Vietnamese cuisine with a modern Western-esque twist to it.  As if that wasn’t already music to my ears, what scored more brownie points in my book – the restaurant’s “mantra”: ethical eating.  They are committed to leaving as light an environmental footprint as possible through using only the freshest in local sustainable and organic produce.  They dedicate a whole page on this on their website, you can check it out here.  This is something I feel quite strongly about and have been practicing in the last few years so it’s really great and inspiring to come across a restaurant that believes in the importance of being environmentally conscious.

So we hadn’t planned on going to Red Lantern that night (even though it was on my “places-I-must-eat-at-when-I’m-in-Sydney” list) but due to being behind schedule and the awful weather, among other things, it became the most convenient place to go for dinner in the end.  We hopped in to a cab and were halfway there when we realized that we hadn’t made a reservation, and it was a Saturday night.  Since we were nearly there we thought we’d just try our luck anyway, and if we couldn’t get in, we would just pick another place – the restaurant was on a street that was a bit of a “restaurant zone” so we would be spoiled for choice.

Got there, and of course, it was fully booked.  Being a Saturday night I was thinking that our chances were pretty slim.  It was still pouring down so we were all wet and cold, and by this point we were all starving too.  Luck was clearly on our side though because while they were fully booked, the hostess had some promising news for us – she was still waiting on a group of 4 who still had not arrived yet – and what do you know, there were 4 of us!

So after a 10-15 minute wait, we finally secured a table – YAY!  Everything on the menu sounded so scrumptious, and not too ridiculously over-priced too, which was the best part!  After some debating we finally decided on the following for our meal:  Entrees: their famous roast duck and enoki mushroom spring rolls followed by char-grilled chicken skewers marinated in preserved bean curd paste, lime and garlic.  Mains to share: char-grilled pork cutlets marinated in honey, lemongrass and shallot oil, Asian mushrooms wok-tossed with tofu, lotus root, Chinese broccoli and glass noodles, and crispy skin chicken poached in master stock with ginger, shallot and oyster sauce .  And to finish, we decided we just had to sample a bit of everything so we got the dessert platter.

Here are some photos to tantalize your taste buds.  Please excuse the poor camera quality.  We were seated outside and the lighting was quite dim, didn’t help that my camera doesn’t take photos well in the dark!

The food was absolutely to die for.  I have eaten in some great places but this is definitely near the top of my list.  The duck rolls were fantastic – you get so used to eating those “regular” deep fried party spring rolls that you forget that spring rolls can be so much more than that.  The best spring rolls I’ve had have been in Vietnam itself; be it fresh or deep fried, they were always packed full of flavor with a good mix of veges, fresh herbs and meat (usually prawn).  You would think duck would be a strange kind of meat to have in a spring roll but it was a match made in heaven – well Sam would beg to differ but he doesn’t like duck so he doesn’t get a vote!  The duck meat was sliced finely, moist and seasoned perfectly, the enoki mushrooms gave a great texture and the herbs just married all the flavors together.  The chicken skewers were tender, juicy and marinated to perfection; such a simple “pedestrian dish” and like any other normal chicken skewer that you can get anywhere, but it tasted amazing, so full of flavor, and even though it was char-grilled, the meat somehow stayed tender and just melted in your mouth…while still having that nice char-grilled flavor to it.

With the mains, the crispy skin chicken was definitely the hero of the night.  You should have seen the looks on our faces when we took that first bite, it was like we were having little food-gasms!  The skin was so crispy and tasty it was like pork crackling…sounded like pork crackling too!  The meat though was so soft, and had bags of flavor in it – I would really love to know what “secret ingredient” they put in their master stock, and how long it has been there for, because that’s just magic in a pot.  I wasn’t too keen on the pork as it’s not my favorite meat but it was recommended by the hostess.  I had a taste and I was actually pleasantly surprised; there was so much going on in that one cutlet that it actually masked the pork flavor which is what I don’t like and why I don’t often eat pork.  The vegetable dish we ordered was probably the most “normal” dish out of the three, but having said that, again, it didn’t disappoint on flavor.  As we all know there is not much flavor – if at all – in tofu, and yet the tofu in this dish was silky smooth and super tasty.  I also really liked the lotus root in the dish, gave the dish texture and it definitely needed that extra bit of crunch.

Now at this point we were all pretty stuffed but who can say no to dessert?!  I’m glad we didn’t pass and I’m even gladder that we got the platter because WOW.  The platter consisted of sesame and rice flour dumplings filled with sour sop served with black sesame ice cream, black sticky rice with caramelized pumpkin, jackfruit and coconut cream, and date and tamarind pudding with butterscotch sauce and vanilla ice cream.  I don’t think I need to say much because I think the descriptions should speak for itself.  Simply, utterly heavenly.  My fave was the dumplings (which the hostess did wholeheartedly recommend) but it was a pretty close race!  Desserts have always been a very Western thing.  Growing up in an Asian family, all we had for dessert – and even then dessert wasn’t a regular affair – was ice cream and/or fruit.  It’s just so inspiring to see desserts like what we sampled at Red Lantern – taking inspiration from European classics but using Asian ingredients and flavors.

I am so chuffed that we managed to get that table at the Red Lantern because that was truly one of the best dining experiences I have ever had.  I left completely satisfied, not completely out of pocket, and I will definitely make a return visit the next time I’m in Sydney.  Food aside, the service was absolutely flawless – hostess was friendly, attentive and very knowledgeable about the menu, the wait staff were equally friendly and very efficient.   I felt the waiting times were spot on, it was just enough time between the courses – a top notch job considering it was a full restaurant.  Ambiance was lovely – tasteful Asian inspired decor, cozy and while it was a fancy restaurant it wasn’t too upmarket or “hoity toity”.  I liked that the small space gave the restaurant a very “exclusive” feel to it, almost like you were part of an invite-only party – and in some ways maybe it’s intentional?  It’s quite tucked away even considering it’s on a main street – it’s like, blink and you’ll miss it!

However I don’t think Luke Nguyen is worried that he will lose any customers because his restaurant is located rather obscurely.  He has definitely made a name for himself in Australia; this lil’ gem of a restaurant may not have a physically imposing presence but it certainly is a culinary force to be reckoned with, make no mistake about that!!  What I found really fascinating was that when I was in the local department stores in Sydney, I soon realized that Luke Nguyen was somewhat of the Australian version of Jamie Oliver!  He has his own range of utensils and cookware (down to cute lil’ dipping bowls!), and his book is pretty pricey considering he’s a “local chef”.  I was pretty tempted to get those dipping bowls or something in his range but considering I already had 2 cook books to lug back to NZ, I thought better not!  Maybe next time…

In conclusion, if you love Asian fusion cuisine, you love food that has complexity of flavors and packs a punch, then you HAVE to pay Red Lantern a visit!  Any Aussies reading this, get your butt down to Surrey Hills.  Everyone else, if you plan on visiting Sydney, make sure you put this on your places-I-must-eat-at list!

Whimsical Banana rates Red Lantern: 5/5 bananas!

Next Up: I review seafood legend Peter Kuruvita’s Flying Fish!