People love it. It has a nice ambience and if you like Asian fusion, I think it might be worth a trip. It is in Chapel Hill, after all - you can always take a nice walk after dinner. Or try an appetizer at the bar in the back - I love it - it's dark and might make you think you're in a big city. If you like the food, order more. If not, wander across the street to Talullah's (Turkish) and nosh on something there, then get dessert at the somewhat posher Elaine's nextdoor. That said, my experiences at the Lantern have been mixed. The first couple of times I went, the cook must have just fallen in love, because the dishes were oversalted. Overall, I think the food is fine, but fairly expensive. I'm not big on paying megabucks for posh Asian-y food, which is probably why I'm not as crazy about the Lantern as many around here. It'll be interesting to see what other replies you get.
Lantern attempts to serve a more sophisticated Chinese cuisine in a chic modern setting. To me, it seems expensive, mediocre, and a bit pretentious. I recommend Merlion instead. It's less self-consciously hip, but the food is better. I have to admit, however, that I am a solitary voice of dissent on this subject. Everybody else seems to love Lantern. I suppose it's a question of what one looks for in a Chinese restaurant. To my mind, Red Palace (see below) is infinitely more interesting than Lantern, at half the price, but I tend to like the "ethnic" aspect of ethnic restaurants -- the weird ingredients, the surprising flavors, the waitresses who can't speak English, the kitschy decor.
Sinophile (formerly David A.)
One thing that rarely gets mentioned about Lantern that really should be is their commitment to local, naturally raised produce and meats. People often remark that it's significantly more expensive than other Asian places should realize part of that expense goes to support this effort. In fact, Andrea is now head of the triangle slow food chapter.
All that said, I've had some great meals there. Their wine list is top notch and the bartender is very talented.
I echo the praise for Lantern, but you asked about vegetarian options--last time I was there, there wasn't too much in the way of veggie choices. My husband and I actually ended up getting three appetizers and one main dish, rather than two entrees, because there was only one vegetarian entree on the menu. However, it was still a very enjoyable experience and the food was very good. They also make a mean dark & stormy with spicy ginger ale.
I'll have to give Merlion another try--we drove out there on the recommendation of a coworker, but were pretty disappointed. My husband's dish was just bad, and mine was pretty forgettable. Perhaps their other dishes are better. The waiter actually steered me away from the one that I wanted to get, telling me that it was kind of dry.
I too have had one or two mediocre dishes at Merlion -- mango chicken for example. And my wife hosted a faculty banquet there that received only mixed reviews.
On the other hand, I have enjoyed two fabulous banquets there, one with the Chowhound crowd, another with family. The family banquet was spectacular: ten dishes, all subtle in very different ways, all superb. There was nothing to criticize in the entire meal.
It may be that Merlion does not equally extend itself for all customers. The two winning banquets were planned long in advance and the owner was made to understand that a top-notch effort was expected. This is not to excuse whatever inconsistency there may be, but to explain.
Even so, I would choose Merlion over what seems to me the ersatz Chinese food at Lantern.
I've been in the Triangle for a little over a year now and Lantern has become one of our favorite places to go. When we want food that will excite us and reward us, we go to Lantern.
To us, Lantern is two experiences at one location: A comfortable, minimalist restaurant in the front and a cozy, intimate small bar in the back.
I've been to the restaurant 3-4 times, as recently as 3 weeks ago. I had the smoked chicken and Flat Iron steak. The Flat Iron steak was memorable to me because I serve it at another restaurant in the area. I was impressed with how tender it was, how well cooked it was, and.. well it was pricey at $29, but I felt it was so good they deserved it. A really good example of why people should like Flat Iron steak. The XO sauce that came with the chicken got my attention so much I found myself dipping the Flat Iron steak in that. My only disappointment with the restaurant on that last occasion was that they had no specials available -- we had gotten there late and I assume they'd sold out of everything, so we'd seen many of the choices from weeks before. I really believe short menus ARE GOOD and are only bad when you eat at the same place regularly.
We've been to the back bar more than the restaurant because it's such a cool place when you want a cozy/intimate time with your S.O. or a chill out with 3-4 friends. We usually get 3-5 appetizers and enjoy the variety, tapas style. But it is the desserts which I get excited for. Lantern has some of the most rewarding desserts I've tasted. They're small -- as desserts should be -- and enjoy them for their richness, taste, presentation, etc.
I had dinner there this past Saturday and was decidely unimpressed. Our waiter was terrible, rude and unattentive. I've come to expect average things from the kitchen, but the waitstaff is generally cheery and competent.
Our food was not bad, but considering the prices, you are better off somewhere else. They only had one vegetarian option which my vegan mother ordered, only to find that it had (locally made!) cheese in it, which was not listed on the menu.
Having said that, I love the bar, it is far and away my favorite in Chapel Hill. The bartenders are the best in town, hands down and they do have a good cocktail and wine list.
I would recommend appetizers and drinks at the bar over dinner in the dining room.
I have to agree with this comment as well. My girlfriend and I went for our birthdays in June, and we were very unimpressed. The waitress did a very good job of ignoring us as much as she possibly could, and the food was very lacking for what the cost was. My hot pot was lacking almost any flavor on it's own and left me very unimpressed.
We are possibly more picky than the average person here when it comes to asian food as we've lived in the Pacific NW our whole lives and there is far more variety and selection there, but this just wasn't good at all for the price. Merlion left us far more impressed, and was a much better value as well. I doubt we'll ever make it back to Lantern again.
I have also had pretty terrible service in the front room of the lantern (though I love the food enough to go back from time to time). One way to avoid this is to sit and eat in the bar in the back which has no reserved seating but is smoke-free before ten and has the best chill/cosmopolitan atmosphere in Chapel Hill. The service back there has always been stellar in my experience. Also have to echo comments on mediocrity of Merlion.
My experiences at Lantern have been excellent. So there have been quite a few.
Lantern is not the cheapest dinner in the Triangle, but it's far from the most expensive. It doesn't really make sense to me to compare it to significantly cheaper places, be they Chinese or not. The idea that "some good meals are cheap, therefore non ought to be expensive" is, I guess, one way to approach restaurant-going. But it's never occurred to me that since there are street vendors in Hanoi, I shouldn't eat at the Slanted Door. (Ok, that's geographically extreme, but there are good street vendors in SF, too). If I eat at Carrburrito's a few times in order to help pay for an evening at Magnolia Grill, it doesn't mean the former was a sacrifice or the latter a waste of money.
So the fact that Lantern seems to focus on local ingredients, small farms, humanely raised meat, etc. makes their prices sensible to me. I think you can taste the difference (like in the very good steak dish that someone else mentioned). The local/slow/sustainable/whatever thing is often referred to as a trend. If what this trend adds up to is that better-for-the-world = delicious, then I'm all for it. And that's what Lantern has consistently demonstrated to me.
They've done a good job at creating a service vibe that is intelligent and serious about the food, without being a bit ridiculous or poseur-ish. My experience has been that the servers are friendly, engaged, straightforward and knowledgeable about the dishes, but not in some embarrassing "let's take a journey..." kind of way. Simple, smart, caring service isn't unheard of here in the Triangle, but it's pretty rare. Lantern is up there.
So I would put Lantern in the Triangle's "serious modern chef" category (and on many days at the top of the list), rather than its "Asia" category. If I think "I'm in the mood for Chinese," I'm not necessarily going to go to Lantern. But I OFTEN think "I'm in the mood for Lantern."
well said, eqv. between you and detlef, i think i make a trio that says we should praise a restaurant for what it is, not deride it for what it isn't (and, frankly, isn't trying to be). lantern's commitment to the farming community is not only admirable from a socio-economic standpoint, it pays dividends in the quality of the food that it serves. additionally, they DO make an effort to use authentic ingredients and preparation when it is feasible to do so from the standpoint of serving their customers. This is instead of jerking themselves off to prove a point of "authenticity" that the general public not only won't appreciate, but won't pay for. they do have a business to run, after all.
from a service standpoint, i, too, have found the service to be, for the most point, more informed and better trained than most in the triangle; and, as far as the bartenders are concerned, they have the very best in my book.
well said guys.
Please David don't compare apples to oranges. Cheap & good isn't a fine evening out.
Are they open for lunch? I'm going to give them a try. Local ingredients & fine cooking to me are the summa. That's what makes the Triangle such a gourmet paradise.
I might try asking for something off menu as the traveling veg. If you go when it is not rush hour (fri, sat) service can be very different. As I said, I go out other nights & have had uniformly fine service for the past year.
they're not open for lunch, but they are open on sundays for dinner, unlike lots of other places around. you should check it out, rory... and again--sit at the bar-- your service will be nothing short of exemplary. service in the dining room is indeed informed, as i said, but it can be spotty.
one other thing-- it takes a seriously f'ed up kitchen to turn out a tough flat iron steak. tenderness is pretty much its calling card.
i have only been to the lantern once, and i guess i really lucked out, because it can not be the same restaurant that you all were ragging on.
there is this delicious appetizer, featuring the best calamari i've had in the triangle served atop a bed of local organic field greens that knocked my socks off.
for the meal, i had a blackbean halibut... was supposed to be seabass, but they were all out, so i "settled" for the halibut. i can't imagine the dish could be any better, even with my favorite fish absent. the perfect balance of flavor.
you kind of do pay for the atmosphere, so i sat in the swank bar area. but the service was great, and the bartenders were efficient. i'd definitely recommend it... unless you want to save a few bucks for food that's made with some hormone-pumped, less flavorful produce.
I had dinner there last night w/a friend. I had been curious about eating there since the Gourmet magazine ranking came in a couple of months ago. My verdict???? It was good but not great. We ordered the seasonal pickles and the bang bang chicken (special for the evening) for apps. The chicken was a very hearty portion of cold noodles on top a bed of julienned marinated cucumbers. It was okay but I honestly could have gotten the same dish at PF Chang's, no joke. The pickles were a letdown. The server had said that it was a variety of pickles including kimchee. Being korean, my ears perked up on that one. When the dish came, there was no kimchee in sight (or by smell). It was a mix of marinated cucumber slices in some tamari/sesame oil marinade, pumpkin pickles, and radish/carrot slaw. The cucumber was very disappointing---it was too salty and the flavors were not balanced. The pumpkin was not good at all---strange texture that was too firm and not much taste at all. For dinner, my friend ordered the tea smoked chicken and I ordered one of the specials, the lionshead meatballs w/glass noodles in a broth. The meatballs were delicious. However, the broth was too salty and not all that flavorful. The chicken was okay--the best part of it was the really crispy skin. Dessert was the highlight of the meal. We split the chocolate molten lava cake w/roasted peanut ice cream. The cake was delicious and the ice cream was absolutely to die for. It was a unique yet not overpowering flavor that tempered the strong flavor of the chocolate. I highly recommend this dessert.
Would I go there again? Most definitely. The best meal I've had in the triangle? Not by a long shot.
HA we were there last night too! I had a mango tango and my wife ordered the hibiscus petal cocktail. They were both very tasty and they didn't skimp on the alcohol. We shared the shrimp and crab spring rolls. Deelicious, and the use of fresh, high quality ingredients were obvious-- but $9 for three spring rolls is a bit steep. My wife also has the tea smoked chicken dish while I went for the fried flounder with tamarind sauce. The flounder was perfectly cooked and the sauce was fine but I like Thai Palace's version of this dish better-- especially when it's available with softshell crab instead of fish. My wife's chicken was nice, I enjoyed the subtle smoke flavor-- I agree the skin was the best part. We were too full for dessert-- I could only finish half of my flounder.
Overall, Lantern is a nice place to eat but for asian fusion I think one's money is better spent at jujube. Or go to Thai Palace for Thai food or Saffron for Indian food in particular.
That is so funny you were there last night as well! I was originally thinking of the spring rolls but I agree that $9 for 3 springrolls is pretty darn pricey. I had thought about the flounder but since I have a cold, I thought the broth w/the pork meatballs would be nice.
I cannot rave enough about the dessert. It was sooo good. I'm going to have to check out Thai Palace next time.
While I do appreciate the Lantern using local and organic ingredients, I have never been wowed by them, the main reason being that several dishes I've had there have bee oversalted, so it was interesting to read that that's still an issue. I thought before that the cook must have been in love - which is what one says in Germany when food comes out oversalted - has anyone else ever heard of this?? But, how long can someone be in love in that kind of oops-tossed-too-much-salt-in-the-dish-because-i'm-
over-the-moon-and-not-paying-attention kind of way?