Restaurant Reviews

Red Lantern on Riley, Sydney restaurant review

With the opening of Red Lantern on Riley from co-owners Luke Nguyen and Mark Jensen, Sydney’s modern Vietnamese dining scene just got a whole lot brighter, writes Pat Nourse.

By Pat Nourse
Have the rice cakes. Little crisped fingers of rice-noodle paste showered with prawn, caramelised pork, pork floss and spring onion oil, they might just pack more bounce per ounce than any other Vietnamese snack you'll pop into your mouth this year. The other good news: you can have them at the bar, possibly chased with a frosty 333 lager.
Red Lantern on Riley gets it really right. Restaurateur Luke Nguyen and chef Mark Jensen, his co-owner and brother-in-law, have built a loyal following at the original Surry Hills Red Lantern in the decade since it opened. In fact, it's probably safe to say that with the success of Nguyen's books and TV shows, it's one of the best-known modern Vietnamese restaurants in the world, but here at the new satellite branch, those years of experience and the money spent on a very attractive clutch of rooms have paid off. The Red Lantern, in other words, has been raised.
Context counts for a lot. If you're a Lantern regular, you'll notice crossover between the menus, but whether it's the setting or some renewed vigour in the kitchen, things sparkle at Riley Street like never before. Nguyen and co have spent serious coin on the new place, and the pay-off is an airy, elegant take on the Indochine look, rich in antique fittings and shutters and wrought in carved screens, hanging bulbs, cool tile, and timber. Framed family photos and aged mirrors adorn the walls. Here's a marble communal table for 12, there's a glassed-in kitchen. More of that creamy marble tops the bar out the back, where bottles roost in wall displays behind chicken-wire. All that's missing is the slow turn of ceiling fans. (And possibly Martin Sheen muttering to his reflection.)
That mingling of France and Asia continues on the menu. One of the rice paper roll options contains a little segment of pork and duck terrine slipped in among the tightly packed noodles, cabbage and carrot, and the charcuterie theme continues with the offer of more terrine on a plate of house-made pâté and sausage.
The rice cakes - Aunty 5's rice cakes, to give them their due as per the carte - are out in front here, but there's a tight clutch of contenders in second position. Vietnam has a significant ethnic Chinese population, so the use of XO sauce in a jammy crab stir-fry (or, if you must, "wok toss") with vermicelli is perfectly legit. More to the point, the West Australian blue swimmer meat, jumbled with the pleasing shapes and crunch of water chestnut, chopped long beans, shredded snow pea and carrot, shines.
There's plenty of Chinese influence on show in the vit quay, too. It's a salad of juicy, fatty chopped roast duck, taken off the bone and plated with crescents of orange flesh and tiny diamonds of zest. The sharp shards of shattered cinnamon and star anise provide both apt spice and a good reason not to inhale the whole thing too indiscriminately. The foil for the richness here is watercress, bean sprouts and slivers of fennel. Does this need more salt, you think as you eat the duck, does it need more acid? And then you take a bite with the greens and the whole thing pops. It's not as heavy with sugar as other dishes of its ilk around town, and its relative lightness - a quality often cited as a hallmark of good Vietnamese cooking - is a win for the kitchen.
Chef Jensen is all about the sustainability, as the title of his book, The Urban Cook: Cooking and Eating for a Sustainable Future, might suggest. The restaurants' cooking oil is responsibly recycled, their kitchen scraps are composted, and they've won prizes for their efficient use of water and energy. In terms of things you can readily observe from sitting at the table, this commitment to doing the right thing means the animal proteins are typically sourced from boutique producers. The duck is from Poultry of Burrawong on the New South Wales mid-north coast, and the honeyed char-grilled pork you wrap with herbs in lettuce for a fine and smoky bun thit nuong mouthful was reared free-range, as was the belly meat enriching an otherwise perfectly straight, perfectly crisp and finger-lickin' banh xeo crepe. The scallops seared and dressed with chilli oil, tamari, lemongrass and brown sugar come from a Marine Stewardship Certified fishery, and the snapper that gets shallow-fried whole and served with jackfruit, tomato and 333 sauce is line-caught. (I'll also put the charge of $8.50 per bottle for the lovably bottom-shelf 333 down to sustainability - of the economic sort.)
Really outstanding grass-fed black Angus, too, is the make-or-break factor that separates fat cubes of peppery, garlicky steak from a hundred suburban variations on bo luc lac, the dish usually translated as "shaking beef". (The name refers to the way the pan is moved while the dish is cooked - the meat doesn't actually shiver on the plate. Probably a good thing.)
Dessert keeps the balloon in the air for the most part. Yes, there are air bubbles up the side of a coconut crème caramel-like kem flan, suggesting that it may have been cooked too hot or too long, but unless you're the sort of person whose day is ruined by the sight of bubbles in baked custards, it's not enough to make it anything less than likable. In the same vein, sweetness is probably the most notable quality of the soursop-filled sesame and rice-flour dumplings and the cinnamon-scented baked pumpkin cheesecake. Could they be better? Sure. Are they both an interesting and satisfying way to end a meal regardless? Definitely.
Sides are just as interesting - the fermented beancurd sauce accompanying water spinach certainly doesn't fake the funk - and the drinks side of things is just as considered, whether it's a wine list very fittingly long on aromatic whites (muscadet and chenin blanc from the Loire, rieslings from Canberra, Eden Valley and Mosel, a bit of gewürtz, and some high-end Burgundy) or tea (a house tisane blended by naturopath Mim Beim). Service is witty and confident. The team on the floor knows the menu back to front, will suggest half-serves where appropriate, and seems thoroughly conversant with the smooth running of a busy restaurant.
I've never counted the original Red Lantern among my favourite places to eat in Sydney, and yet I already find myself becoming a repeat customer at Riley Street. Sure, the signed books and monogrammed chopsticks side of things could be toned down a bit for those of us here more for the food than for a glimpse of Luke Nguyen's famous red T-shirt. But hey, it's a really nice red T-shirt, and Nguyen, Jensen and their cohorts have created a restaurant of no small substance and charm. I'll certainly be back.