I spent four glorious years in Chapel Hill – not nearly long enough. During my time there, my meals consisted of delicious sorority house cooking, and brunches at Elmo’s and Sutton’s Drug Store. Though I’ve always been a foodie, I didn’t exactly have $30 to spend on an entrée at Lantern, but the restaurant’s reputation always intrigued me. Executive Chef Andrea Reusing is the 2011 winner of the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast. The James Beard Awards are the Oscars of the food world. In addition, the restaurant has been featured in numerous publications, including Southern Living and Gourmet Magazine. When an opportunity to dine at Lantern finally presented itself last week, I couldn’t have been more thrilled.
The only reservation time available on a Tuesday was at 5:30pm. When you’re in NYC, dinner isn’t until 9 or 10pm, but down South, I’m totally fine being an early bird. By the time we left, each table was full. Minimalistic décor and Chinese lanterns (how appropo) adorn the quaint restaurant. The back bar is dark, romantic and cozy. There’s even a small stone garden outside, perfect for meditating, or settling into your food coma. In a Wall Street Journal article published last year, Reusing said “Fusion became a stand-in for confusion,” so she makes a point to stay true to Asian flavors, and doesn’t “Americanize” her menu.
Our server was very well-versed in dinner specials and prices. I began my Lantern experience with the Cunning Kimono, a crisp and refreshing cocktail consisting of jasmine flower vodka, fresh lemon and honey. It was garnished with a lemon curl, and tasted earthy, in a good way.
The Bento Box is essentially “build your own sushi.” The box was delivered to the table with the top on, so it was like opening a present! Great presentation. Sake and tea-cured Arctic Char, house-pickled ginger, red cabbage, miso mayonnaise, sticky rice, fresh wasabi and nori (seaweed) were each in their own section of the box. The pickled ginger tasted like straight vinegar, not the usual sweet and sour flavor I was expecting. The red cabbage and miso mayonnaise were the star ingredients, and it was a fun, hands-on dish.
Crispy Duck Soup was presented in a pot, covered with a lid, so again it felt like Christmas morning to open this gift. I was greeted with a cloud of steam and was pleased with the feast that awaited me. Our server told me I would be extremely satiated after eating this dish…obviously he underestimated my palate. I didn’t find it too satiating at all. Fresh egg noodles and a confit duck leg floated in a clear duck broth, along with oyster and shiitake mushrooms, bok choy and scallions. If the broth had been cream-based, it definitely would have been too rich. Schezwan pepper and chilli oil were presented in little dishes, to use as a condiment for the soup. The Schezwan pepper had a sweet heat that I didn’t care for, while the chilli oil would have been delicious to dip bread in. I used every drop of it. I decided it was too classy an establishment to drink straight from the bowl, but I hated to leave all the broth since that’s where so much of the flavor was.
I had extremely high expectations for Lantern, and for the most part, they were met. It’s been open for 10 years, so it’s not a secret anymore – this place (and Chef Reusing) have quite the reputation now. And we should all be proud to have a James Beard winner so close to home.