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Lantern, Chapel Hill

d
durhamois Jul 29, 2012 11:30 AM

Up until now, I have not been a big fan of the Lantern. I have eaten there half a dozen times since they opened, and almost all of the meals have been highly forgettable. One of the dining experiences was so bad that I sent a long email to the owner detailing the troubles that we'd had, and she graciously responded by sending me a gift certificate that covered dinner for four. However, when I went back the next time to use the gift certificate, the meal though not horrible, but still highly forgettable. So while I have enjoyed going to the bar for late-night cocktails and noshes, I haven't eaten dinner in the dining room for a few years.

However I recently had to make reservations for a large party of foodies who were here from out of town, and because of a number of factors (the group's particular culinary interests, some food restrictions, location), it really only made sense to eat at Lantern. So I booked reservations for a party of 12, and crossed my fingers. It turned out to be a wonderful and memorable dining experience. For large parties they do a prix fixe menu, but they do not limit your menu options very much. It's $55 per person, and they bring out all 5 appetizers family style, and then every diner chooses their entree and desert. There were at least 5 or 6 entree choices available, and all the deserts were available, so I did not feel that they were taking away the most interesting or expensive menu options.

I really appreciated the way they did the appetizers. Rather than bringing them all out at once, they sent out a couple at a time, so they came in waves. First we had Salt & Pepper Shrimp and some amazing dumplings. Next came a divine and perfect heirloom tomato salad. Finally we were brought some Vietnamese spring rolls, and the piece de resistance of the appetizers, a crispy chickpea chaat that had wonderfully intense spice, and was for me characterized by an amazing attention to the dish's texture and mouth feel. This was cuisine at a level I usually don't find in Triangle Area restaurants. Don't get me wrong, we have a lot of great local restaurants that turn out wonderful, flavorful food, but the chaat was one of the most thoughtful dishes I have had in a long time.

Our entrees were all good, though nothing could have topped the apps (first courses are always my favorite party of the meal). I got a seared beef filet that came on skewers, with crispy fried spinach and a ponzu sauce. Again, the texture of the spinach was amazing. The beef was good, though it could have been a little more rare, and a little more flavorful. I thought it would have been nice to have a sauce with more going on than the ponzu. Everyone in our party was happy with our entrees. The only other main course I tried was the vegetarian tomato and vegetable stew with local paneer, and it was delicious and flavorful.

We were impressed with the deserts too. For me the standouts were a steamed yuzu pudding with soft cream, blueberries and blackberries; and a molten chocolate cake that saved itself from being a cliche through its pairing with a phenomenal preserved strawberry ice cream.

We had several bottles of wine, all of which where very good. The one that I want to see if I can find in stores was a chilled Burgundy, the Domaine Voillot pinot noir.

I have to say, I left the restaurant trying to think of the next time I'd have an excuse to dine there again with a large party. I think it's true that the food and service were generally better than they had been on my previous trips to the restaurant. But I really felt that dining there as a large group provided the restaurant with the opportunity to show us what they can do. It was one of the more exciting Triangle restaurant excursions I've had in awhile, and I am glad to have a new local favorite.

  1. LulusMom Jul 30, 2012 02:27 AM

    Great to hear this. I have had a similar experience, although I do still wish to heck they'd change up their 2 fish preparations. But I started going back about 4 months ago, and making a meal out of 3 appetizers most of the time, and being totally thrilled with my meals. They tend to do at least 3 appetizer specials each night, so you can often try something new, and pretty much everything I got when ordering this way was fantastic.

    1. d
      D R C Jul 30, 2012 08:42 PM

      Neat observation. My experience there has been pretty much like your previous experience and I haven't been a big fan. What's interesting to me in a related way is that we ate a fixed price family-style dinner with a fairly large group at Slanted Door in SF a few months ago; they've been criticized for becoming more of a tourist attraction than a foodie destination after moving several years ago, but our meal there was excellent, expansive, and very fairly priced. So I relate to what you're talking about here.

      4 Replies
      1. re: D R C
        t
        Tom from Raleigh Jul 31, 2012 11:29 AM

        There are no hard and fast rules stating that app, entree dessert is the only way to order. My wife and I like to order multiple apps at Lantern. Also, I'm a big fan of the tea-smoked chicken and rice main. Normally, I avoid most chicken preparations when eating out, since they appear quite pedestrian, but this one is a real winner.

        Anyone have thoughts on which species are better in the whole fried than others? I had the whole flounder recently and it was OK, but not mind-blowing.

        1. re: Tom from Raleigh
          LulusMom Jul 31, 2012 04:25 PM

          Honestly, I got tired of ordering that dish. I can make that at home and it's been on the menu for 8 years now. No matter what kind of fish it is, it is going to have the same slathered sauce on it.

          I'm totally with you on the app/entree/dessert thing (obviously). I pretty much never get dessert, and often do the 3 apps thing. I feel like chefs are often most inventive in that course, for whatever reason.

          1. re: LulusMom
            d
            dbird Aug 3, 2012 05:09 PM

            Couldn't agree more about the fried fish. Also very tired of the pickled carrot/jasmine rice thing. To DRC: are you talking about Slanted Door move from Valencia or has it moved from Ferry Bdg? I started at Valencia but have been going to Ferry Building since it moved-- early 2000? and it's just as good, but I admit I usually ate at the bar when I was known! I have NOT been in the past couple years and hadn't heard that it had relocated.

            1. re: dbird
              d
              D R C Aug 5, 2012 02:32 PM

              Yes they are in the ferry building, we hadn't eaten there since they moved there several years ago...the kids are only just old enough now to go to nice restaurants :-). Fantastic view of both the Golden Gate and Bay bridges. The Valencia location was much lower key but we had a couple of memorable meals there.

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