Red Lantern – Surry Hills & Darlinghurst, Sydney

Red Lantern CrownA while ago I took my first foray into Surry Hills and had lunch at Red Lantern on Crown. Like the buildings surrounding it, Red Lantern is steeped in history and you can almost feel the walls leaning in to tell you their stories. Dark wood furnishings are adorned with family pictures and Indochine treasures. Deep reds and an ancient fireplace extend the warm welcome of the staff.

130331 Red LanternOn this occasion I dined on my own and was delighted with the option of ordering two half mains. This is the only restaurant I know that offers the option of “down-sizing” and I think it’s a great idea. I started with the turmeric chicken rice paper rolls and chilli dipping sauce. The joy of Vietnamese food is its sublime delicacy. Getting it right requires a deft hand and absolute balance. If you want to know what I mean, this is the dish to try. I followed this with wok tossed beef and a moist herbed and delicately spiced fish, which I’m disappointed and ashamed to admit I can’t remember the name of, particularly because it was one of the best pieces of fish I’ve had. Apart from the food, I was profoundly impressed with the easy comfort of eating here on my own. The staff was attentive, friendly and deeply perceptive – bringing me some of the outstanding recipe books on offer to keep me occupied while waiting for my food.

Restaurant Interior A

A few weeks ago I spent the weekend in Sydney with my husband and decided to try Red Lantern on Riley in Darlinghurst. This latest addition to the Nguyen/Jensen collaboration is bigger and more modern than its counterpart in Surry Hills, but still offers a good nod to its roots.

Being as we were happy to settle in for a bottle (or two) and soak up the experience, we opted for the tasting menu. This is my favourite way to eat – a perfectly portioned offering of the many ingredients and techniques unique to a culture and cuisine. It’s like taking an experiential walk down the culinary halls of Vietnam.

E CalamariRice paper rolls with lemongrass chicken, marinated chillies and seaweed started our journey, along with lightly battered squid and lemon pepper dipping sauce. I have seen my husband eat fish erroneously served by friends twice in the past 13 years. This time it was by choice and he ploughed through that squid as if it was a bowl of popcorn and we were watching a scary movie.

D Som TamThe twice cooked pork belly with som tam (green papaya salad) was just as successful and probably one of my favourite dishes. Who doesn’t love perfectly moist pork with crispy skin – but in a Vietnamese salad is the best way to eat it. The herbs and lime cut through the richness and I would put chilli, roasted peanuts and fried shallots on everything if I could. The duck was a bit over-smoked and so the plum sauce and tamari were not overly noticeable.

F Beef RibsThe barbecued pork ribs marinated in hoi sin sauce rewarded with a deeply infused flavour, moist flesh and a sweet glazed finish. The winner for me though was the grassfed black angus sirloin, simply wok tossed with garlic and black pepper. I suppose it’s the truly smoking oil and years of seasoning a traditional wok that H Beefimparts a caramelisation to the meat that you’d never get any other way. It’s the only time I’ve ever regretted having induction rather than gas in my own kitchen.

130906 Fat Noodle PhoIf you live in Brisbane and want to taste a little of the magic Luke Nguyen has created, try The Fat Noodle at the Treasury Casino in Brisbane. A wholly different dining experience with a menu more appropriate to the pop-in diner, but no less enjoyable – especially if you have never had Pho and want to try it. This is a staple Vietnamese soup, often eaten for breakfast. It is the most delicate yet complicated soup. Simmered for hours and hours, the result is a salty, sour and hot broth that takes years of practice to perfect. The broth is generally served with noodles, finely sliced beef (added raw just before serving) and herbs.

Of the three, I’d have to say my favourite is Red Lantern on Crown in Surry Hills -but then I’m an old romantic and love the idea that this is where it all started.

Three Blue Ducks – Bronte, Sydney

Recipe Book PSI’ve been to Sydney on business just about every month for the last two years and I’ve eaten at many great restaurants. This last weekend I flew my husband to Sydney for his birthday. With only three nights at hand I spent some time agonising over which restaurants to take him to. Three Blue Ducks in Bronte was my only given – and they didn’t let me down. Thank heavens. Because one hour before our reservation we took a peek at the menu online. Looking like he’d sucked a lemon, my rather conservative and very much steak-and-veg-loving husband implored “is THAT the menu?”.

Not that he won’t try something a little different – when I cook it. I’m not sure if that’s because he knows I’m sentient to his taste or if it’s just because the poor chap hasn’t got a choice, but in general when we go out his choice is steak, spuds and greens. Nonetheless, he stepped up to the challenge and the boys prevailed. Not really three blue ducks anymore, but five, these guys have created something together that is what I can only describe as understated brilliance.

Three Blue Ducks, in the heart of Bronte, is warm, welcoming and utterly unpretentious, but the atmosphere belies the excellence underpinning its success. It may present as more of a cafe, but with ex-Tetsuya head chef Darren Robertson in the mix with home-grown and locally sourced produce, you’re in for a treat. The fusion of characters and cuisines, from five surfers with varying histories to the strong influence of Morocco and Asia, makes for an interesting result.

Of course I’ve eaten here before, popping in once for a quick lunch and great coffee, but it was lovely to take the time to soak up the salty twilight with a glass of pinot noir  and the waft of chargrill drifting across the room.

IMG_1137Did I mention the service is impeccable? Our pork and beef dumplings with ponzu (soy citrus dressing) arrived within minutes. Delicate silky dumplings with a slightly sweet, salty and sour dressing was the perfect entree.

IMG_1139The duck, cooked on the bone, served with chilli jam, greens and wild but delicate mushrooms was perfectly moist. The hero here though is the chilli jam. I could eat it with anything, on it’s own, by the jar or straight out of the pot … and now that I have the recipe, I intend to.

SteakMy husband, the fillet king, loved his flank steak – perfectly chargrilled, butter-soft and simply salted. Not partial to zucchini or squash, he devoured this almond and parmesan rendition – and I will not rest until I can make it myself (hint for your next recipe book chaps). MushroomsMy man would equally love me to recreate the mushrooms with pearl barley, macadamia bread sauce and labne he ordered on the side. Lucky for him this one is in “The Blue Ducks” recipe book and lucky for me I now have another carb to play with.

We sidestepped the smoked potato ice-cream (for reasons afore mentioned) and opted instead for the strawberries with yuzu curd, salted meringues and goat’s milk. Like everything else here, simple but exciting, crunchy and soft, sweet and salty, sour but delicate. The yuzu curd (yuzu being an East Asian sort of cross between a mandarin and a grapefruit) was knockout. Again – pot, jar, spoon.Strawberries

I couldn’t be more pleased that from wary trepidation, this turned out to be one of my husband’s favourite food experiences. Proof that if you (or your partner) is a fussy eater you may well step over the precipice into a food wonderland and not be disappointed at Three Blue Ducks.

As for me, I’m off to make a Sunday-night Blue Duck “kick arse steak sandwich”.