TABLES Love thy neighbour
Judith Elen finds an unexpected gem in the Canberra suburbs
HEN my taxi turns into what looks like a deserted corner of suburbia, I think I have the wrong address; perhaps the driver wants to check his directory. I’ve taken a cab from the gallery side of Canberra, across Lake Burley Griffin to Campbell. I gaze out on the glare of parked cars around a small grass island, a few trees and a semi-circle of sleepy local shops, and there it is, Lanterne Rooms, opened in April last year by Josiah Li, whose restaurant The Chairman & Yip is a long-established institution in the centre of the city.
More used to the push and shove of inner-city streets, I’m discovering that Canberra’s restaurant scene is peppered with memorable eating places in unassuming backwaters. Tucked between a newsagent, a small Boy Scouts hall and takeaway shops, the restaurant’s quietly distinguished facade, with a black-and-white striped awning protecting an expanse of shaded windows, sets it apart from its neighbours. I soon discover it is an oasis of genteel Asian chic in this slumbering suburban cul de sac. Only in Canberra.
It is still quite early for the lunch crowd; there are two or three groups seated, and the waiter consults me on my preference among the tables. Settled in to a good spot with a view everywhere, I gaze around. There is plenty to look at.
Whereas the exterior could be a discreet restaurant in the French provinces, inside has the relaxed, elegant feel of colonial Vietnam. The space is open but strategically screened. Panels, a crucial feature of the room’s design, have the double function of sheltering diners in their own spaces without enclosing them. The black-stained, louvred wooden dividers allow filtered views, light and air, without the immediacy of fellow diners. The effect is of a series of semi-separate rooms.
The timber floors are dark and the walls of whitepainted wood. Squares of primary red and blue glass framed in white on one wall, like light panels above a period door, add to the air of quiet gentility. The only other colour is from strategic flowers and the lanterns that give the place its name. Perhaps collected from around Asia, high-ceiling lanterns are of golden silk, others white and filigreed.
The kitchen at the back of the restaurant, like the rest of the design, is open but semi-screened.
After my initial warm welcome, there has been no move to bring me a menu and then, once I’ve requested one, no attempt to take an order. The wait staff seem easygoing in a friendly, self-contained way, but this is odd in a place so focused on detail. I catch the waiter’s eye, give an expectant nod and soon realise they thought I was waiting for a friend. I had originally booked for two but had rung at the last minute with a change of plans.
All is explained and had I not been so absorbed with the decor I would have found out earlier. That clarified, several staff come to apologise for the wait and the moment’s unease is quickly rectified.
Turning to the menu, I find a mix of Asian influences. Malaysian chef Jeffery Shinn infuses his dishes with the Chinese, Indian and Portuguese-Malay nonya tastes and perfumes of his homeland, but he has also cooked in Switzerland and there is an elusive European air wafting through the tropical mix.
I choose an entree of duck rolls and marinated vegetables with kaffir lime chilli dressing ($13.50) and
Colonial feel: Hidden among nonedescript shops in Campbell, Lanterne Rooms is a revelation while you can’t really have too much duck in a meal I don’t want to be obsessive. I forgo a luscious-sounding parcel of duck and taro served on marinated vegetables ($21.50) for my main and am next drawn to fish poached in ginger broth with pickled mustard leaves ($21.50).
Several wines are available not only by the glass and bottle, but by the half-glass, a brilliant idea and ideal for a lone luncher to try different labels.
Torn between a Kapuka 2008 Sauvignon Blanc ($8; $32) and a Sanctuary 2007 Pinot Gris ($8; $30), both New Zealand wines from Marlborough, I order halfglasses of each ($5).
The duck rolls arrive bite-crisp, with nice little mouthfuls of duck meat and finely julienned carrot, baby rocket and red capsicum. They are subtly glazed, just sweet and just sharp, and leave a lovely, lingering mouth feel. I’m trying the pinot gris first, and it comes in a slightly smaller glass than usual, generously threequarters full, so the half-glass doesn’t look odd.
My fish main course is succulent and goes well with the sauvignon blanc. The broth is fragrant, not too rich for a lunch dish, with a hint of coconut and galangal; the vegetables, marinated and lightly pickled, provide a background of green accented with tender tomato pieces.
Completely at home at my solitary table amid the comfortable buzz of conversation, every now and then