Friday, August 25, 2006

Red lantern

This little Surry Hills gem has been one of my favourite restaurants for a few years. Down the increasingly gentrified strip of Crown Street, the bland facades give way to a deep scarlet renovated terrace with a beckoning dark, mysterious, lacquered interior. A couple of outside terraced steps provide some outdoor tables streetside, and the languid shadowy room, heavily decorated in nouveau Saigon opium den style, offers inside seating in an intimate but noisy dining space.

There are many reasons I keep coming back to Red Lantern. Having discovered it way before the TV series Heat in the Kitchen, which made it almost impossible to get a table there for months, it’s not just the funky interior design that pleases, but the cuisine which while innovative, firmly keeps its roots planted in traditional Vietnamese style. Secondly, in my humble opinion I think this restaurant does THE best chilli salt squid in Sydney. I know that’s a big call, but every single time I dine here I order it and it never lets me down. And thirdly there’s the rest of the menu. While I haven’t sampled everything, the food is extremely tasty but not over spiced, and with so many delectable fresh vegetables and salads that you can convince yourself without too much trouble that you’re eating healthy.

M & J were my lunch companions celebrating J’s promotion (yay!) and M is a pescatarian or (vegaquarian if you prefer). The exclusively vegetarian section of the menu has eight items, and there are more choices for the fish eaters. Even for the goi cuon or papaya salad they’re happy to serve the dish without the pork, so it’s eminently adaptable for some additional non-meat choices.

True to form the first order was the Muc Rang Muoi or chilli salt squid (above $16) – a tumbling mountain of crisply flash-fried melt-in-the mouth squid pieces, with a palate-reviving, sit-up-and-take-notice lashing of salt and chilli. The squid is served with an aromatic and astringent lemon and pepper sauce, which I dip about every 4th piece of squid in because it packs a punch. The goi cuon – rice paper rolls (left, $12 for three) – with yamba prawns present a translucent tease of shellfish, perilla (or shiso) leaves and garlic chives, hiding shredded greens and vermicelli in the interior. Dipped into the home made hoi sin sauce it’s light, crunchy and succulent.

Given M’s dietary preferences I had the chance of getting past my favourite entrées of crisp spiced quail and the crisp parcels of pork and chicken, but I can thoroughly recommend them as well.

Goi Du Du or green papaya salad with prawns and fresh herbs (left, $16) offers a cascade of papaya with golden fried crispy shallots and garlic, tangy spice, a dousing of chilli, and aromatic herbs. We’re still hungry, so we order the Man Xao Nam Dong Co – wok tossed bamboo shoots, shiitake mushrooms and bok choy in oyster sauce (below, $13.50). I ask for a bit of tofu to be thrown in because I love it so much, no problem. Served with steamed rice, the meaty mushrooms and slickly sticky rich oyster sauce are a great contrast to the crunchy bamboo slivers. The rice soaks up the abundant sauce.

There’s a wealth of other choices at Red Lantern: the ever popular Pho and the traditional Vietnamese style crispy pancakes with various fillings that you can play with at the table. There are also clay pot fish and chicken dishes, wok fries, and goat curry (the latter I think is definitely an acquired taste). And at these reasonable prices you can afford to go back and try many options – if you can manage to give up the chilli salt squid addiction you are bound to develop!

Red Lantern
545 Crown St.,
Surry Hills
9698 4355
Open for lunch from 12.30pm Tues-Fri
Dinner, Tues – Sun from 6.30pm.


Anonymous deborah said...

yum! the green papaya salad looks and sounds really good. i'm looking forward to the warmer months when the salad is a regular on my menu.

great review rebecca!

11:02 AM  
Blogger Reb said...

Thanks Deborah! I just so love this restaurant, I can go back time and time again - a great reliable Sydney feed :)

1:51 PM  
Anonymous Sue said...

YUm! my favourite. Chilli Squid! Great review, I have been wanting to try this one for a while

6:57 PM  
Blogger Reb said...

Run, don't walk Sue! You won't regret it, just remember to book if it's a busy night like Friday or SAturday

9:39 AM  
Anonymous jules said...

I haven't been to red lantern in ages..thanks for reminding me...I definitely share your chilli salt squid addiction

6:46 PM  

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