Sunday, 1 July 2012

Vietnam dreaming

I have an easy relationship with Vietnam.  A beautiful place, with friendly people and delicious food, it was hard not to fall in love.  Those of you who have been there before will probably agree I’m sure (at least, I hope you would). 

Since my return this easy love affair has turned into a not-so-secret obsession.  Our Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam has been there and back no less than four times since.  There’s no doubt in my mind that my friends are going solely due to my persuasiveness – or, perhaps, to shut me up.  But no matter how you look at it, I’ve been a boon to the Vietnamese travel market (really).

A street market selling lanterns in Hoi An

A cyclo driver taking a well earned break in Hoi An

Due to my now not-so-new love of all things Vietnamese it was only natural that I would be drawn to Luke Nguyen’s television show, Luke Nguyen’s Vietnam

The young chef was at ease in front of the camera, his love of his heritage clearly evident and his interaction with the local Vietnamese natural and endearing.  And so began another infatuation.  Two cookbooks (Secrets of the Red Lantern and Songs from Sapa) and a drawer full of Luke Nguyen branded kitchen utensils (the Vietnamese coffee maker is particularly special) later, I finally managed to have dinner at his Sydney restaurant, RedLantern.

This in itself was a saga.  M tried to make reservations on two previous occasions, only to be advised that you need to book well in advance (up to 6 weeks in some cases).  Through sheer perseverance, and some gentle womanly nagging from me, M remembered that he would need to book early to secure a table.

There have been many occasions when I have been equally excited about doing something.  The anticipation is exasperating, my mind creating an almost unfair expectation.  Often, I have been disappointed.  Recent case in point: the recent Ridley Scott/Prometheus episode. But I don’t want revisit that incident again so soon.

However, the Luke Nguyen / Red Lantern exercise was far more rewarding.  Thankfully.  It could quite easily gone terribly wrong.

Located in a converted terrace house on Crown Street in Surry Hills, the restaurant makes the most of every nook, cranny and corner available.  But this also lends to it the impression that you are enjoying a meal, with friends, in one of their living rooms.  It’s warm, homely and relaxed.  This at home impression is only furthered by the attentive staff, who are friendly and more than willing to share a laugh and talk you through the menu. 

Family run and owned by Luke, his wife Suzanna, his sister Pauline and her husband Mark.  It is clear that the heart and soul of this restaurant is family. The walls, shelves and mantelpieces of the restaurant are adorned with Nguyen family treasures – a greying photo of an aged relative and another of Pauline and Luke as children.  The menu even shares a dish made using Aunty Number 5’s recipe.  It’s truly heart warming.

Red Lantern's owners from L-R: Mark Jensen, Luke Nguyen and sister Pauline Nguyen

I ask my friends if they are happy to let me manage the ordering.  Days before our booking I downloaded the menu and stewed over it trying to decide what I would order.  It was too difficult because I wanted to try a bit of everything. Luckily, they were obliging and happy to hand over the reins.  At the bottom of this post you’ll see a list of what was ordered.  The flavours in the dishes are crisp, clean and clear with the highlights being the mouth watering banh tom, the perfectly cooked bo luc lac and the silken and spicy cari de.  I’d also have to recommend that you finish it off with Kem flan and wash it all down with some ice cold bah bah bah (or 333, one of Vietnam’s best beers).

To start:
-          Gui Cha Cuon: soft rice paper rolls with pork and duck terrine, vermicelli, cabbage and pickled carrot.
-          Banh Tom: Aunty 5’s rice cakes with tiger prawns, caramelised pork, pork floss and shallot oil.
-          Muc Rang Moi: Lightly battered chilli salted squid with fresh lemon and white pepper dipping sauce
-          Gui Du Du: Twice cooked pork belly, tiger prawns, green papaya, perilla and mint

For main:
-          Ca Hap Ca Cot Dua: Blue Eye Trevalla poached in aromatic prawn, tomato and coconut bisque
-          Ga Chien Don: Crisp skin Burrawong pasture raised chicken poached in master stock with ginger and oyster sauce
-          Cari De: Tender goat meat cooked in southern style turmeric and coconut milk curry
-          Bo Luc Lac: Cubed pasture fed Black Angus sirloin wok tossed with garlic, sesame and black pepper
-          Cai Xanh Xao: Organic mixed Asian greens wok tossed with mushrooms and oyster sauce.

Sweet things:
-          Kem flan: Coconut crème caramel made with free range eggs and coconut milk
-          Banh ron voi thach hoa qua: Red Lantern doughnuts with fruit jellies and vanilla ice cream
-          Chuoi Chen: Red Lantern banana fritters with vanilla ice cream

Red Lantern on Crown on Urbanspoon

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