Every time I have eaten at Red Lantern I have gotten as excited as a kid in a lolly shop in the lead up and every time I am more excited when I leave. Vietnamese is probably my favourite cuisine. I was meant to travel to the country this year for the first time but ended up changing careers which saw a massive life change and postponed holidays. Celebrity Chef Luke Nguyen and his in-house maestro Chef Mark Jensen, along with Nguyen’s sister, Pauline, operate this marvel of a venue. It is Vietnamese street-food fused with Sydney à la carte, it’s not the cheapest but my god it’s the best!
RED LANTERN VENUE:
The venue itself is stunning even before you get to eat the stuff from the kitchen. The design is French-Colonial with padded occasional banquet seating, dark wooden tables and bent wood chairs, a long marble communal table, Luke’s family memorabilia and an assortment of hanging lights and lamps, including required signature red lanterns.
The fit-out, a few years back now, was from the Giant Design team who took their inspiration from films such as THE QUIET AMERICAN and IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE to create an interior with stately colonial elegance. When it originally opened the back section of the venue was a cocktail bar. It has since been transformed into a private dining room.
A textured, aged look was achieved on the walls and joinery with a specialty hand-finish paint and plaster. Furniture was custom-designed; hand-made cement tiles, marble, lighting and miscellaneous props were sourced from Vietnam.
It really is from another time and after each visit I feel I should have worn my white linen suit and ordered a martini on arrival – next time!
SERVICE WITH A SMILE:
As good as the venue and the food is the service. With massive applause to the kitchen staff that we never see the waitstaff are the soul of the venue. They are the eyes and ears and the interaction with patrons. Mimi and Tae looked after us like champions and they felt like friends by the end of the meal. It wasn’t me just swooning when the gorgeous Tae delivered us cocktails I promise. It was their prompt efficiency, their knowledge of everything and us allowing them to basically pick everything we ordered and drank.
They also suggested that we could try more if we ordered half sized plates. I am unsure if this was because I was there to review or if this is available to the public but best to ask because it allowed us to order six dishes instead of four and the joy of trying more made for more satisfaction. Also as per that – don’t judge the dishes I have photographed as being what you get for your about $40 mains. Most will be double the size.
WHY IS RED LANTERN SO AWARDED:
There are so many reasons why Red Lantern is the most awarded Vietnamese Restaurant in the world. Firstly, it’s that good. No arguments. Secondly, the venue, the service and the presentation. Did I mention Luke Nguyen is a celebrity Chef? Mark Jensen is too. You can then add every item from the menu to the list of reasons.
Red Lantern is to Vietnamese food what Apple is to mobile phones, they just haven’t made billions yet! They took something simple and created genius. They made it sexier, more appealing and people have fallen in love with it. You won’t find a banh mi or a pho on the menu and while I would kill to see what Nguyen and Jensen could do with them I am more than happy with Wild Arctic Surf Clams, Roasted Duck or Master Stock Pork Neck and Tiger Prawn Omelettes. The flavours of street food emanate from the food but the finished product is more the food reserved for royalty. Can you tell I am a fan yet?
WHAT WE SMASHED:
Cocktails and Small Plates:
There is so much food to choose from. It was made much easier with the ability to halve a few of the dishes and having our wait staff champions guide us.
Tae kicked us off with cocktails – and I jumped into a Pink Lotus – Reposado tequila shaken with pomegranate and apple liqueurs. A twist on the classic Margarita.. HEAVENLY!!! My guest, Granny Lynda indulged in the Negroni Royale – Dolin Rouge, dry gin and Aperol stirred and served over ice. We continued our meal with a tempranillo that was AMAZING!
Our first food was a staple, a safe dish and a perfect starter. Muc Rang Muoi – Lightly battered chilli salted squid with fresh lemon and white pepper dipping sauce. It looked like those rice packing pellets you get in boxes these days but tasted damn fine and got those juices flowing.
Next up was a dish Granny really wanted – Goi Nghieu – Wild Arctic surf clam served with pomelo, pickled fennel and sawtooth coriander salad. She had eaten it years ago overseas and didn’t like it and was curious to see if it was just that one time. I had never eaten it before so was keen to try We both loved it. It was a little like abalone, a beautiful fresh meat that married with that superb summer salad like bacon and eggs.
The table favourite was suggested by Tae, his favourite dish on the menu! Banh Bot Chien – Aunty 5’s rice cakes with tiger prawns, caramelised pork, pork floss and shallot oil. I will order this dish on EVERY subsequent visit to Red Lantern!
Larger Plates and Dessert:
First of the mains in my gob was Lau Nam va Khoai Mon – a five spice mushroom hot pot with taro, sweet potato and baby corn. This was a homely comfort food dish. I love mushrooms and rarely order them but I was determined to try this hot pot – neither of us were disappointed.
Bo Luc Lac was next in line. It’s a Riverine Black Angus MBS 2+ beef strip loin wok tossed with black pepper, garlic, oyster sauce and sesame. A little more simple than the other dishes but as tasty as you would imagine. One of the best pepper steaks I have devoured.
Then came second table favourite of the night – Ca Chien Xot Nuoc Dua – Pan fried fish fillets with lemongrass scented coconut milk, sawtooth coriander and chilli. Perfection in a seafood dish. Such delicate flavours that could come from Thailand or Vietnam. I will definitely be eating this again and would prefer the whole dish as opposed to a half dish next time. This one’s too good not to eat the entire thing.
Finally the dessert platter for two. I think the platter usually has three desserts on it but we scored all four. We indulged in Kem Flan Nuoc Dua – Coconut crème caramel made with free range eggs and coconut milk. Delicious – the coconut version was a nice change. Banh Cam Mang Cau – Sesame and rice flour dumplings filled with caramelised soursop with black sesame ice cream – interesting and flavoursome – the outer shell was divine! Black sesame ice-cream and I think the other was a salted caramel? LOVED that black sesame ice cream.
The first dish that got me to eat bananas:
And rounding out the dish is the first dessert that ever got me to eat bananas. It was maybe eighteen months or two years ago I tried the Red Lantern banana dessert and I actually loved it. Still can’t eat bananas unless at Red Lantern. It’s definitely the sweet and crunchy crust and the palm sugar caramel that makes the bleached snot pooh logs edible. Chuoi Chien – Banana fritters crumbed in coconut and white rice with palm sugar caramel, tapioca sauce and vanilla bean ice cream. Definitely eat these babies!!
Red Lantern is a Luke Nguyen/ Mark Jensen marvel. It never fails to impress and is always consistent in quality. It’s a superbly ran tried and tested restaurant and the success boils down to the best of everything when you visit. From service, to food, to presentation, to decor, cocktails and even music. One of my all time favourite places to feast.
SCORE BREAKDOWN: 3/3 food, 2/2 service, 1/1 drinks, 1/1 venue & ambience, 1/1 cost, 1/1 toilets and 1/1 bonus
Red Lantern Deets:
PH: (02) 9698 4355
60 Riley Street, Darlinghurst 2010
BOOKINGS: Not Essential
HOURS: Lunch: Fridays 12 – 3pm | Dinner: Tuesday – Sunday 6pm – late
BAR: Fully licensed
LOCAL DELIVERY: Deliveroo
VEGETARIAN OPTIONS: Yes
GLUTEN FREE OPTIONS: Yes
KID FRIENDLY: 50/50 – it’s quite fancy
*** JK (and any guests of Spooning Australia) were invited guests of the establishment and/or any PR agencies representing them. However, as always, if it was shite I would happily tell you as such ***