423 W Franklin St
Chapel Hill, NC 27516
Lantern on Urbanspoon

I haven't been at this blogging thing for very long (well, almost 6 months now.  Wow.) but I have noticed that, like anything, it has it's tedious parts where you have to kind of force yourself to write a post (almost feels like a job) after a lukewarm experience and then there are some instances when you can't wait to get home and start writing because the experience was so great.  Lantern is one of those places.

I found out about Lantern after asking the foodie blogosphere about places to go while I was in North Carolina for the weekend.  I learned that the chef, Andrea Reusing is the 2011 James Beard Award winner for Best Chef Southeast and married to the head of a hipster record label (Arcade Fire!!!).  The restaurant also has a ton of accolades from places like Gourmet magazine but what I found to be the most telling and coolest part of the website/chef is that she touts and praises her former chefs/kitchen staff on where they moved on to next after Lantern.  These "alumni" all look to be part of what looks to be a pretty vibrant restaurant scene in the Research Triangle.

I originally made the reservation for just me, my parents and niece because I didn't want to be presumptuous towards the rest of my extended family that's visiting Chapel Hill too.  Yeah.  No.  I ended up changing the reservation several times in the span of about a day and the final count of family attending was 9.  So, the dinner coolly turned into the closest thing to a family reunion that my family has ever had since we're so spread out from the Philippines to California to Maryland.  We were still missing my brother and my two cousins (from Vegas and San Diego) but it was as close as close can get for us.

As you run down Lantern's menu, you can see that it prides itself in using locally sourced seasonal ingredients so it's squarely in the "farm-to-table" category of restaurants.  It's also distinctly Asian in it's flavor with what felt like a more refined technique in it's preparation.  Everything on the menu looked appetizing and that's the good thing about 9 people eating at the same table.  We had a chance to try almost everything.  There was also a freakish thunder storm that rolled in during dinner so you'll see my food pics go from perfect light to slightly dark all between the appetizers and entrees.

But, drinks first.  Most of the table stuck to some wine and water but some ventured to try (yeah I was one of them) some of the drinks on their menu.  I ordered a Windy Village which was made with Hendrick's gin and fresh yuzu with some sliced cucumbers.  Think a gin and tonic with some sour citrus flavor and that you'll never enjoy a gin and tonic after you've had this.  My aunt got a Hibiscus Petal which is hibiscus-infused vodka, fresh lime juice and thai basil.  She said it was very similar to a blood mary.  Also, when they say thai basil, I thought maybe a leaf or two not the whole tree.  Who needs an umbrella in a drink when you can have a thai basil baby sapling in your drink?  My cousin got a Late Blossom which was vodka, lillet blanc, lychee juice and orange flower water.  He didn't say how it was.  He's pretty much a man of few words.  Let's move on.

I should obligated to know what everyone ordered for appetizers (well, the whole meal too) so that I could probably record it in this space.  Well....umm....yeah, I don't really remember.  I was just too excited to eat my own order much less worry about the rest of the table.  So, the list of appetizers that I know we got included: the soup of the day (wow.  to this day I laugh when I see that because of Dumb and Dumber) which was sweet corn and heirloom tomatoes in almost like a thick chowder form; mine was the black & pepper shrimp; the heirloom tomato salad; the chaat; and spring rolls served cold.

My cousin had the heirloom tomato salad with shiso and shallots.  Yeah.  The same cousin.  It looked good at least.  At least, I got a bite out of the rest of the plates on the table.  The chaat had distinct Indian flavors while the contrast in texture between the crispy fried potatoes and chick peas was a nice touch.  The spring rolls were fresh, clean and you controlled the heat of the bite depending on whether or not you used the chilie oil concoction that came with it.  The salt and pepper shrimp was lightly battered and placed on a bed of fried cilantro and jalapeno pepper slices.  The preparation encouraged you to eat the whole shell of the shrimp which was a first for me but the shell gave the shrimp more textural variety and while the shrimp was nicely sweet it was balanced by the spiciness in the jalapenos and cilantro.  My niece ordered the sweet corn and heirloom tomato soup.  It had a nice creamy texture and really showed off the sweetness of the corn and lusciousness of the heirlooms.  All the appetizers were pretty amazing but the soup was just a cut above the rest.

Entrees.  First thing I have to say is that 9 people at a table is an absolute sh*t show.  I don't think the table we got really fit 9 people but the staff and restaurant were so nicely accommodating to us and they didn't have any larger tables so we had to make due.  My point in mentioning this is that even if I wanted to be diligent in recording what everyone order, the sh*t show that 9 people does not allow for that.  I did my best and hopefully that counts for a little.  Mine was easy as I got the BBQ'd pork shoulder that could be served as a lettuce wrap, there was the smoked chicken with fried rice for my dad, the niece got a the whole fish special which was red snapper, my cousin got the Japanese style filet, and I think there were a couple seafood hotpots in the mix.

My locally raised pork shoulder was served in a banana leaf wrapper that was conveniently slit for easy access.  It was accompanied by some thin rice noodles, several leaves of lettuce, some long slices of cucumber, cilantro, mint or possibly thai basil (did I mention the drink I ordered?), oil with chilies, and a type of creamy sauce that reminded me of a peanut sauce.  The pork was nicely smoked, tender and with hints of Asian spices (perhaps a bit of curry or cumin).   The rest of the ingredients allowed me to create little lettuce wraps of goodness alternating each one with the spicy oil and the savory sauce.

My little bites of each of the other dishes provided me a spectrum of Asian flavors.  The red snapper came out crispy on the outside and flaky on the inside.  The broth that came with it reminded me of a thai preparation and was absolutely spot on.  The hotpot included shrimp, clams, lobster dumplings, some noodles and another astounding broth that had a ton of depth and flavor.  The chicken by itself was a little ordinary but when eaten with the accompanying condiments (minced spring onions or hot chili flakes), it perked up quite a bit.  The Japanese filet looked great.  Yeah. looked great (dude, needs to learn how to share).

Everyone was pretty full so desserts were limited to two for the table.  I ordered the steamed yuzu pudding with soft cream, blackberry crush and fresh blue berries.  There was also an order of the hyssop-lime sorbet with anise on top and a couple of huge black sesame fortune cookies.  The pudding seemed more of a cake then a pudding to me so maybe I'm confused as to what a pudding is.  It wasn't quite as tangy as I expected but the blueberries and cream on top made for a greatly balanced dessert.  The anise on top of that tart sorbet was a great revelation of cool tangy bite with a great spiced flavor (kind of like nutmeg).  The fortune cookie with black sesame was light and crisp and should be liberally dipped into the sorbet.

Lantern was recommended to me by some fellow foodies and all of them raved about it as a must-go to restaurant if I ever was in the Research Triangle area.  I had a lot of expectations going in and after a pretty substantial meal for nine people, the service, the ambiance, and the food all lived up to those expectations.  But, beyond the meal, I'm thankful for the restaurant to putting up with the large amount of family members that showed up.  We're not the type of family to have reunions, even spontaneous ones, and this may have been the first one in a long time.  It could have been a disaster with so many of us but the experience at Lantern made sure it was the furthest thing from that.

P.S.  There was a pretty sudden thunderstorm that rolled in during dinner and you'll see in the pictures that they're nice and bright one course and then dark the next.


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