A 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.
On 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.
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.
Rice 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.
The 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.
The 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 imparts 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.
If 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.