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Jul 29, 2012 11:30 AM

Lantern, Chapel Hill

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.

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  1. 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. 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

        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

          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

            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

              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.