Syd­ney’s finest Viet­namese restau­rant is still a fam­ily af­fair, writes Alexandra James

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

LIKE its close cousin Thai, Viet­namese cui­sine in Aus­tralia gen­er­ally is con­sid­ered a cheap and cheer­ful op­tion. Of­ten served at small, fam­ily-run restau­rants, it’s pop­u­lar as stu­dent fare, with shared dishes, no-frills decor, clat­ter­ing at­mos­phere and the nour­ish­ing smell of shrimp paste.

Then there is Syd­ney’s Red Lantern, an es­tab­lish­ment that serves such re­fined and in­ven­tive Viet­namese cui­sine that it must be com­pared with David Thompson’s pi­o­neer­ing Dar­ley Street Thai at New­town (and later in more glam­orous sur­round­ings at Rush­cut­ters Bay) and his Sailors Thai at The Rocks.

The schol­arly Thompson, one of the world’s most re­spected Thai food ex­perts, is now in Lon­don with a Miche­lin ac­co­lade to his credit. One can imag­ine Red Lantern mak­ing such a break­through, too. To eat here is to dis­cover Viet­namese food of rev­e­la­tory stan­dard.

Red Lantern opened in 2002 in a scar­let ter­race in in­ner-east Surry Hills, with a decor that looks freshly lifted from back­street Hanoi.

Own­ers Luke (chef) and his sis­ter (re­cent cook­book au­thor) Pauline Nguyen, with the lat­ter’s part­ner, chef Mark Jensen, have en­joyed in­stant and sus­tained suc­cess. Pauline’s just-re­leased Se­crets of the Red Lantern is as much fam­ily album as sump­tu­ous recipe book.

Es­cap­ing Viet­nam ‘‘ not long af­ter the fruit­less war’’, the Nguyen fam­ily set­tled in Syd­ney’s Viet­namese en­clave of Cabra­matta, where Luke and Pauline’s ‘‘ strict, food-ob­sessed par­ents’’ ran a busy restau­rant. Food in­formed and in­fil­trated ev­ery­thing to do with the Nguyen chil­dren’s early lives, so it seems a nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion that Luke and Pauline should con­tinue the fam­ily tra­di­tion.

‘‘ What dis­tin­guishes Viet­namese food is its em­pha­sis on fresh­ness,’’ Pauline writes. She ex­plains that fresh herbs are never used spar­ingly; there can be as many as a dozen sprin­kled through one meal.

To best savour Red Lantern’s food, a group visit is ideal, with lots of shar­ing across the ta­ble.

We are three: my hus­band and son are hearty eaters and this is a good thing. Too few dishes and you can’t re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate the full com­plex­ity and taste jux­ta­po­si­tions of Viet­namese food.

But given that most din­ers fol­low this group approach, it is squashy in this con­verted ter­race (fire­places, high ceil­ings, the typ­i­cal lay­out of a row house’s front rooms). Bare-topped ta­bles are close to­gether and the chairs are dev­il­ishly hard; it’s not an ar­range­ment that in­vites se­ri­ous lin­ger­ing, and ta­ble turnover is high.

Be warned that you do need to book, even for the ca­sual pa­tio ta­bles out front and the sit-up street-fac­ing bar.

Pauline writes of crunch and con­trast, and in no dish is this more ap­par­ent than rice-pa­per rolls ($13.50). An en­tree of three ar­rives — long and stuffed with prawns, ver­mi­celli, finely sliced pork neck, shred­ded ice­berg let­tuce and mint, end pieces of gar­lic chives stick­ing out like lit­tle han­dles — with a dip­ping dish of hoisin sauce spiked with bird’s-eye chilli and crushed roasted peanuts.

We eat with our hands and, yes, there is plenty of crunch and the happy op­po­si­tion of cooked and cold, soft and crisp. Our sec­ond en­tree is also a Red Lantern sig­na­ture item: salt-and-pep­per squid ($18) with a lemony dip­ping sauce. Chilli, spring onion and gar­lic have been tossed through the bite-sized pieces of flour-coated curly squid. Again, this is one for de­lec­ta­ble fin­ger eat­ing.

Red Lantern has a good-sized veg­e­tar­ian list (the trade­mark rice-pa­per rolls can be or­dered with non-meat fill­ings), from which we se­lect a lemon­grass veg­e­tar­ian curry ($18) stud­ded with chunks of tofu, mush­room, egg­plant and pump­kin. The co­conut cream-en­riched sauce soaks up plain steamed rice. This dish doesn’t seem far re­moved from a Thai curry, but there’s an un­der­cur­rent of ta­marind that lends a slightly salty sharp­ness and the chilli fac­tor is low. Viet­namese food doesn’t have the heat of many of its neigh­bour­ing cuisines. Pauline writes that the spici­ness is in the mari­nades and there should not be too much fire. This is food ‘‘ that knows how to lower its voice’’.

Two meat choices fol­low: braised pork neck slow-cooked with shrimp paste and lemon­grass ($20), and the evening’s star, black an­gus beef wok-tossed with soy and se­same ($22), served with lit­tle bowls of tomato-flavoured red rice and a crunchy salad of shred­ded veg. The wok-charred meat is melt-in-the-mouth ten­der; flavours of oys­ter sauce, gar­lic and black pep­per can be iden­ti­fied amid the smooth soy and se­same. Like Thai cui­sine, there is a clar­ity of taste here, an iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the gamut of flavours.

The per­fect ac­com­pa­ni­ment to this feast is Lucky beer ($7) in plump green bot­tles shaped like a jolly Bud­dha; th­ese are the sort of con­tain­ers that would have been re­cy­cled with can­dles in stu­dent house­holds of the 1970s (I re­call chi­anti bot­tles). Maybe they still are: my son is much taken with the idea, and our waiter says the Aus­tralian-brewed lager has been de­vel­oped as an ac­com­pa­ni­ment for Asian food.

This hand­some waiter in groovy black glasses ‘‘ knows a lot about the food’’, my son ob­serves. It is only af­ter he dis­cusses with us the in­tri­cate mer­its of our shared or­ders of sticky black rice with taro and sweet­ened co­conut cream ($11) v ice cream ($12; a med­ley of taro, se­same, ginger and cin­na­mon flavours) that we re­alise we have been waited on tonight by Luke. ‘‘ I like to get out on the floor,’’ he says, sim­ply.

Red Lantern is sell­ing copies of Pauline’s book, which con­tains Nguyen heir­loom recipes as well as the story of their 1978 es­cape from Viet­nam, but there’s no hus­tle to pro­ceed­ings.

When we tell Luke we have one at home, he says we should bring it in and Pauline will sign it. But we would like his sig­na­ture, too. As the best Viet­namese restau­rants have al­ways been, the Red Lantern is a har­mo­nious fam­ily af­fair. All Ta­bles vis­its are unan­nounced and meals paid for.


Red Lantern 545 Crown St, Surry Hills, NSW 2010; (02) 9698 4355; www.redlan­tern.com.au. Open: Lunch, Tues­day to Fri­day; din­ner, Tues­day to Sun­day. Cost: About $100 for two, with beer. (Many wines by the glass, from $7.50.) Rea­son to go back: To get Se­cret­softhe RedLan­tern (Mur­doch Books, $59.95) signed by the Nguyens and Mark Jensen.

Pic­tures: Sam Mooy

Warm glow: Group din­ing is best for sam­pling dishes such as rice-pa­per rolls, above left, at the pop­u­lar Red Lantern

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