60 Riley Street
Darlinghurst NSW 2010
+61 2 9698 4355
Marty and I love our Vietnamese food with a passion that’s unrivalled by even the most ardent of Collingwood supporters. I’d even go so far to say that I like my Vietnamese food authentic to the max – no vegan organic mushroom pho for me, thankyouvery much. That said, Marty and I love TV chef Luke Nguyen and his show Luke Nguyen’s Vietnam so a visit to his restaurant Red Lantern was definitely on the cards.
There are two Red Lanterns; the flagship restaurant is in Surry Hills while its younger sister is in Darlinghurst. We decided to go to the Darlinghurst restaurant as it was closer to where we were staying and slightly easier to nab a table.
Red Lantern on Riley represented the Toorak end of the Vietnamese food spectrum. Instead of $10 bowls of comforting noodle soups and pork rolls, we now have flashy French colonial décor and Vietnamese-inspired cocktails with pun-ny names in a Sydney suburb where you can buy a studio apartment for the same price as a three-bedroom house in Melbourne’s east. In all honesty though, I was really impressed by the restaurant – it almost felt like I was on the set of The Quiet American.
Ignoring the fact that we were the only Asians in the whole restaurant, we admired everything else around us from the lovely wooden panels to the LN-engraved chopsticks. We were even taken in by our cool waiter who actually knew what nuoc cham was.
We loved the names given to the cocktails here at Red Lantern so we decided to order a few. First up, we have Marty’s One the Hue which was fruity and fun, with a hint of herby-ness.
To make up for my lack of femme fatale, I decided to go for the Pham Fatale which had bolder flavours than Marty’s cocktail. At the moment, I’m a huge fan of coconut water so I was happy when I found out that my drink contained it (it also made me wonder more bars aren’t using it for their drinks).
There were three rice paper roll dishes on the starters section: masterstock Burrawong chicken, prawn terrine and vegetarian. We weren’t sure whether to go with the chicken or the prawn, but the waiter kindly offered to do a half-half thing so that we can sample both.
Although I thought the chicken one tasted better, I did find the prawn terrine one a lot more innovative and therefore, more interesting to eat. What I did like about them both was that super fresh organic vegetables and herbs were used and that made a massive difference to the quality of the rolls.
After that, we decided that we wanted to try the vegetarian rice paper rolls. They contained a tofu, cabbage, wood ear mushroom and mung bean filling and a bowl of pineapple tamari dipping sauce was provided for a bit of zing.
So the rice paper rolls may have been fresh and the ingredients used may have been top quality but were they better than the ones you can get at Footscray? Nah. Compare $18 at Red Lantern to $5 at Footscray and you have a bit of a no-brainer situation, no matter how good the Red Lantern ones may be.
Our next dish was the Banh Tom Chien. I have no idea who this Aunty 5 person is but anyone who can make a rice cake dish as tasty as this deserves at least a proper name. I loved that exciting flavours of this dish paired well against a blanket of slightly crispy rice cakes and well, who doesn’t like pork floss?
I’m a sucker for Bo La Lot so I was keen to see how Red Lantern’s version would fare – and whether its price tag was justified.
This dish was lovely, though I would have liked to taste a bit more smokiness in the beef. I also found the dish to be a bit exxy, especially given that you can get the same quality in Box Hill at $15, max.
We were still swooning over the cocktail menu so we ordered another one each. Marty’s Indochine was unfortunately a tad too sweet for me so I’m glad I didn’t order it myself.
I did like my Ha Long Shake though, which was a fun and flirtatious mix of apples and pomegranate minus a god-awful internet viral sensation.
Our final savoury for the night was a chicken dish. The meat was beautifully tender and I especially liked soaking my rice with the lovely sauce that came with it – I just wished that there was more of it for me to enjoy.
All desserts at Red Lantern are $15 each and although I don’t scream for desserts, I must admit that I couldn’t decide which one I wanted. To make things easier, we opted for the dessert platter, which showcased three of the finest desserts on the menu. First up, we have Red Lantern’s blatant attempt to toff up the quintessential Aussie-Asian dessert, the banana fritter. Here, our organic banana fritters were crumbed in coconut rice and served with palm sugar caramel, tapioca and house-made vanilla bean ice cream. I had to admit, it was a pretty creative – and well-executed – spin on the suburban Chinese favourite. Even if the ice cream was already on its way to being half-melted by the time the platter reached our table.
I thought the Xoi Chuoi Nguong (char grilled red rice and coconut cream wrapped in banana leaf) was nice too, though I admit that it probably wouldn’t have been a dessert I’d order on its own. I appreciated the subtle bouts of saltiness that crept up in each spoonful and the coconut ice cream that provided a refreshingly sweet balance to an otherwise rich dessert.
Finally, we had a crème caramel infused with kaffir lime. I was expecting the crust to be hard like a crème brûlée so I was kind of disappointed to find that it wasn’t. That said, the texture was beautifully smooth minus the silkiness and being a pineapple lover, I loved the pineapple salad that was provided on the side.
We both went to Red Lantern, knowing full well that it was going to serve the sort of overpriced Vietnamese food that catered to gweilos. And although our food tasted fantastic, I think that deep down we both yearned for Vietnamese food in the traditional sense. You know, the kind of food that a Vietnamese mother would make.
Some people might even say that Red Lantern goes against the essential nature of Vietnamese cuisine i.e. one that is cheap and delicious. I do agree with that and plus, you’d be hard-pressed to find food like this in Vietnamese unless you’re going to a fancy hotel that caters to Western tourists (and why would you, when you are surrounded by amazing street food?). Despite all that though, we did enjoy our meal – it’s just the fact that we’ve both been spoilt for cheap and delicious Vietnamese food while growing up would have most likely clouded our opinion of what is otherwise a well-run business.