Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Red Lantern

545 Crown Street
Surry Hills NSW 2010
(02)9698 4355

Category: Just got paid ($50 - $100)

Before we commence on this one, I have a few things regarding restaurants in general.
Rule no.1 - Cleanliness.
Rule no.2 - Cleanliness.
Rule no.3 - Cleanliness…

I really can’t stress it enough can I? The fact that there was a rather large cockroach crawling up the wall about 10 centimetres away from me towards the end of our meal really was not a good way to finish an already rather dull evening. I understand it was an open restaurant and these things happen, but at this level it is really unacceptable.  

Let’s wind back first however, to before this gruelling event occurred. Welcome! to the famed Red Lantern and none other than our resident go-to Vietnamese chef-cum-celebrity Luke Nguyen and his famous Surry Hills establishment.

Personally, upon arrival, I had high hopes. The location is prime, and the way the restaurant is set out is great; a house conversion does give it that rather homely feel and you can see what Luke is trying to achieve. The use to wood and placing photos, pictures, embellishments all throughout the restaurant makes one feel like they have entered a friends/family dwelling as oppose to a restaurant. Vietnamese food after all and Asian dining in general is all about togetherness. Sitting at a table together with friends and family at home; the idea itself is very clever and one I also find very appealing on first look.  

However, despite his growing status as a celebrity, with DVDs, books etc. (The original Secrets of the Red Lantern book is very good) he should probably stop travelling the world, helping out on MasterChef but instead pack his bags, and return to his restaurant… because it needs help, lots of it.

The staff are very friendly and extremely knowledgeable (which I like), and the menu is simple (which I also like). I see potential if they do this properly and am excited somewhat. We opt for the tasting menu which guarantees us a selection of the best Red Lantern has to offer ($60 per head).

We begin with 4 starters, a chicken and jellyfish salad which is ok (only just ok), Vietnamese rolls which really lack flavour in my opinion, the calamari where the batter was too thick, and a prawn salad which again seems to lack punch. The flavours do not hit me like I am expecting them too and it all seems a little bland and un-engaging for my liking. I do not get the distinct hits of chilli, lime, fish sauce, and mint like I was hoping for, and perhaps I was looking too much for that ‘Vietnam’ experience however I am not getting it thus far. Things were starting to go down hill.  

Bring on the mains, and I am probably more disappointed now than I was with entrées (sigh). 5 more dishes arrive; the pork shoulder stew looks and tastes like something out of a Chinese restaurant (the take away place I go for lunch down the stairs in a food court tastes better). The stewed Wagyu beef again tastes very Chinese rather than Vietnamese, and the texture was not there from the beef to suggest it was a better cut of cow. A serving of green vegetables are provided but very boring and lacked inspiration, flavour and care, and the fish curry was also far from what I would describe as fresh. The duck was probably the only highlight of the 5 dishes provided, however I would call it the best from a bad bunch rather than an actual good dish.

Maybe I am spoilt? Growing up in a family who was very true to real home style cooking, expressing all the flavours that our local cuisine has to offer, and now being married to a Malaysian whose parents and relatives also have show stoppers of their own when it comes to food.

Combine the average food, couple this with the cockroach, and add the $240 bill (for 4 ppl) and I can only say it is not somewhere I will return, nor probably recommend. If you are looking for a proper Vietnamese feed I would still say head to Cabramatta/Canley Vale. It’s cheap, tasty, the food is loaded with flavour, and you can really feel the culture of the place. It’s probably cleaner too.

Overall, I was really looking forward to this place; it had all the hallmarks to be an excellent restaurant. However despite all the seemingly right elements it failed where it mattered, and dissapointingly at the most basic of principles; good food.
Bottom line:
With a group of 4 you can go for the banquet which provides a sampler and you won’t go hungry at $60 per head. Otherwise for 2 you should find change from $100 including drinks.

Food                                       5/10
Service                                   3/3 (One of the I would have to say)
Décor                                     2.5/3 (The idea and delivery was very good)
Cleanliness                           0/2
BONUS                                   0/2

Total                                       10.5/20

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