Saturday, 26 May 2012

Leave a little light on for me: Red Lantern, Surry Hills

You know how people say that it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive? Well, they’re wrong.
Welcome to Sydney
I travelled hopefully to Sydney a few weeks ago and arrived with the chance to visit Red Lantern, the Vietnamese Restaurant in Surry Hills which is co-owned by Pauline Nguyen, author of “Secrets of the Red Lantern”, her partner, Mark Jensen, and her brother, Luke Nguyen, who are the chefs. 

Many of you will know Luke Nguyen from his television appearances and certainly Red Lantern has its fair share of buzz in the foodie community. However, it was hearing Mark Jensen speak at the Perth Writers’ Festival back in February that my reason for booking a table. Mark was part of panel discussing food (of course!) and his book “The Urban Cook: Cooking and Eating for a Sustainable Future” which focuses on producing, sourcing and eating food ethically. I was impressed by his commitment to provenance and sustainability so when I got the go-ahead for my Sydney trip, I was determined to get a chance to sample the Red Lantern fare for myself.
The Red Lantern website, however, offers the daunting comment that there is about a 2 month waiting list for a table at the weekend. That being said, I reasoned they might possibly have a place early on a Monday for a lonesome Perth girl. (Insert violin music here…) I filled out the online reservation form, hit send then was completely elated when called me on my work phone the next day to confirm my booking. That evening I settled down to do some research. For the most part, Red Lantern has a great reputation – customers usually rave about the food. However, some of the reviews on UrbanSpoon were less than flattering, complaining about the quality of the service and the food. When you are a long way away, you do wonder if you've made the right decision.There was no way to know what it would be like unless I found out for myself. A-quiver with anticipation didn’t even begin to cover my state of mind.
I was staying in Surry Hills so the restaurant was only a five minute walk from my lodgings. I arrived there right on 6pm hoping that I didn’t look too eager. I was hungry (I had only got off the plane from Perth at 4pm) and I was ready for whatever deliciousness they could put in front of me.

I climbed the steep steps at the front of the restaurant to the front porch where a line of red lanterns glowed in the dusk. After the pleasant buzz of seeing my name on the reservation list, I was shown through to a table in the front area of the dining room. I was sitting near a bricked-in fireplace, an old Chinese radio was on the mantle and so was a jar containing a preserved snake! The bookshelves had copies of “Stories from the Red Lantern”, “Tales of Sa Pa”, “Indochine” and “The Urban Cook”

The waiters were all just lovely, can I say that right away? There I was, Nigel (Nigella?) No-Mates, taking up a perfectly good table for two all by myself, but they were so welcoming and didn't make me feel awkward for being a solo diner.  I ordered a glass of Lowe 2006 Cabernet Franc and checked out the menu. There was so much that I wanted to try!  Friends had made recommendations about the pork ribs and the squid and other Red Lantern specialities. How could I possibly limit myself to just one of two dishes? Then one of the waiters told me that as I was dining alone, they could devise a ‘menu for one’ using half-serves and entrees as mains so that I could try a few things. I almost cried with happiness, placing my choices in her hands and knowing that she would take care of me.

She put copies of "Indochine" and "Stories of the Red Lantern"on my table for me to read while I waited. I didn't have to spend long browsing the beautiful photographs and recipes before she came back with my first course – a half serve of prawn and perilla rice paper rolls with dipping sauce (Goi Cuon). What a wake-up call for my jaded traveller’s palate! The minty perilla hit first, super-fresh and filling my whole mouth with vapours that were quickly followed by a wave of ocean as I chewed through the juicy prawn. The dipping sauce was a nutty balance of sweet, salty, tart, mellow. It was a great way to start.

Next came the chili salt squid (Muc Rang Muoi). At the time, I said it was going to ruin me for salt and pepper squid forever, because nothing could be as good as that ever again. I think I was right. When I think of squid now, I just think of this dish. It was so light in colour and texture, a delicate golden mass on a bed of shredded cabbage. There was nothing oily or cloying about it, each piece was dainty and crisp, the chili providing warmth and the lemon-pepper dipping sauce adding tang and zest. Now if I could get a paper cone of this glorious stuff at the Perth Royal Show, I would be a happy camper indeed!

I ordered another glass of wine. Then my main courses came – Asian greens with mushrooms (Cai Xanh Xao) and deep-fried rice cakes with tiger prawns, caramelised pork strips and pork floss (Banh Tom). Up until this moment, I had forgotten how much I enjoyed meat floss, either pork or chicken. When I was a child, I knew it from the plastic packets that our Singapore relatives brought with them when they visited the UK. Of course, the Red Lantern pork floss was a far-superior version to the highly-preserved one that I knew from the past. It melted over the prawns which themselves offered a textural counterpoint to the deep fried rice cakes which were divine – crispy on the outside, soft on the inside. The whole dish was lifted by drizzles of shallot oil. Of everything I ate that evening, this was my absolute favourite. I know this because when it was all gone, I was very sorry that there hadn’t been more.

The Asian greens were tasty – I gave up counting how many varieties of mushroom were concealed among the oyster-sauce-drenched leaves. I had as much of this as I could before I abandoned it, believing myself full. I had eaten well – there had also been a fluffy bowl of white rice. Four courses were more than I had ever hoped for! I was done.

But then I was asked if I would like to see the dessert menu.
Well, I’d come a long away (over 4000 kilometres!) so I thought I’d better just take a little look. To be polite, you know? And that was when I saw the Vietnamese Espresso Martini and the Banh Cam Mang Cau – otherwise known as sesame and rice flour dumplings with soursop and served with black sesame ice cream. Sesame! Soursop! I would have been crazy not to.
What makes a Vietnamese Espresso Martini Vietnamese, is the fact that the martini-glass has been coated with condensed milk. If you’ve ever lived and worked in Asia, you’ll have memories of tea time with a tin of condensed milk and a spoon there on the table ready to stir into your beverage. Or you might even have been lucky enough to be treated to condensed milk sandwiches. At any rate, condensed milk can and should be considered an Asian cooking staple and it was a delightful moment to find it incorporated into a cocktail that I love.

The dumplings arrived hot, straight from the deep fryer – three blond spheres speckled with white and black sesame seeds sitting in a puddle of soursop juice as the black ice cream melted over the top. Me, full? Ha. I ate ever last bit. And I scraped the plate. Perhaps I even skimmed it with a finger-tip to get that last little drop of ice cream… The memory of the warm glutinous dumplings and heady sesame fragrance is making my mouth water as I type (not good for the keyboard but you get the idea).

At the end of the meal, I was asked if I would like to buy any of the books. I seriously considered this as I don’t own any of them. Alas, they are big, heavy books and I had a baggage allowance of 23kg only, so I had to say no. Now that I am home, I will definitely be finding copies for my kitchen.
I don’t normally post about the cost of food but I think it needs mentioning that my five-course meal including rice, two glasses of wine and a cocktail only set me back $119. You’d be hard-pressed here in the West to get a meal for this amount at a restaurant with a similar reputation.
I travelled hopefully to Red Lantern, I arrived, and all my expectations were not only met but surpassed. Any worries that had been generated by my reading of UrbanSpoon comments quickly disappeared. I could not work out why some people had been so critical - I found everything to be of an extremely high standard.I cannot recommend the food and the service highly enough and strongly suggest that you check out the option of an early weekday booking if you can’t wait 2 months for a table. A second Red Lantern is opening in Sydney soon, so there will be more chances for people to try this amazing cuisine and be offered this excellent service.

I'll be back in January - travelling with certainty and arriving with an appetite. I will definitely be booking ahead.