Review of Lantern

We finally got around to having dinner at the highly-recommended Lantern, in Chapel Hill. It's one of the restaurants people repeatedly said we would really enjoy, and they we're mostly right.

Lantern has been described as Asian fusion, but that's only partly correct. It's largely a fusion of Asian flavors and cooking techniques, not so much bringing together one Asian cuisine with, say, a Western cuisine (which I think is more of a traditional take on the "fusion" movement). The ingredients are local and fresh, and the restaurant has a strong following in Chapel Hill.

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This was probably the best meal we've eaten since arriving in the Carrboro-Chapel Hill area. Service was solid and knowledgeable, flavors we're bold (nothing was underseasoned or held back) and the menu was interesting from top to bottom. The dining room is lively and well-decorated, but also far too loud.

Our meal got off to somewhat of a slow start, as our waiter got at least two tables at the same time. But we helped to compound any delay by starting out with cocktails, asking a lot of questions and deliberating over the menu. Once service started rolling, however, it was efficient and smooth.

The appetizers we're good, but largely one-note. Spicy pepper flavors overpowered both the crab and pork spring rolls and the special of the night, a seafood salad with shrimp, scallop and calamari. Neither had much taste of the seafood in the actual dishes, but both we're still satisfying.

The braised pork shank was by far the best dish I've eaten in a restaurant since moving to the area three months ago. It's described on the menu as a "Niman Ranch pork shank with local shiitake and black mushroom sticky rice and braised watercress with roasted garlic." It's a very large dish, and extremely rich. The braised shank tasted deeply of pork, while the glaze had flavors of ginger and hoisin sauce. The waiter said the sticky rice, combined with the rich sauce the pork was braised with, gave it almost a risotto-like quality, and he was correct.

North Carolina catfish, cooked in a clay pot with a caramel sauce and jasmine rice, was less successful in my opinion. The sauce was overwhelming, masking both the delicate rice and the fish with a robust sweetness. But it was still full of good flavors, well presented and satisfying.

Dessert was the pecan-caramel cake with five-spice ice cream. The cake had a crispy layer on the bottom which gave it a nice textural contrast, but the ice cream (not overly sweet) was the star of the plate.

Overall, dinner at Lantern was a welcome change of pace and a definite success. While I thought several of the dishes we're unbalanced, with ingredients meant to be the "star" of the dish being overwhelmed by an overly spicy or sweet sauce, everything was still bold and solid.

I'm not usually a fan of house cocktails, but a hibiscus-infused vodka with lime juice and Thai basil was crisp and refreshing, really just an excellent drink. A mix of sake and vodka served with mango puree was less exciting but still good if you're a mango fan.

Perhaps the most impressive part of the meal: our server was fantastically knowledgeable. I can't stress how refreshing and important this is. He seemed to know every detail of the dishes and to have real opinions about which ones he liked best and which ones could be skipped. And he paired two red wines with the main courses, and each really stood out and cut through the rich sauces.

Least impressive part of the meal: The cost. Lantern is, in my opinion, a little overpriced. The spring rolls we're a large potion, but at $10 I'd have opted for smaller and cheaper. The seafood salad was $12, which seems like a lot for an appetizer. The pork shank was $27, which is probably fair because braising takes time and because the portion was large. But $21 for catfish seems high, as it's a pretty humble fish. House cocktails and desserts all ran $8.50 each, which I'm fine with in a bigger city but for Chapel Hill is a little expensive.

All in all, this was a good meal in an exciting restaurant. I would definitely go back, but next time might intentionally pick a slow night and sit at the back bar ordering appetizers. Lantern does a lot of things very right, with just a few things I'd like to see improved. These are big flavors and impressive ideas a real relief given the wholesale underseasoning I've experienced in the area so far.





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Posted in Home Improvement Post Date 09/01/2016






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