A World Dinner as part of the Crave Sydney International Food Festival, a perfect excuse for a return visit to Red Lantern’s ‘new-ish’ addition to their restaurant family: The Red Lantern on Riley team are taking us to the streets of Vietnam, an evening of tantalising flavours inspired by local street vendors. Throw in some matched Central Western (Orange) wines and it should be a cracker of a night.
I grab my foodie mate, Martin, he’s up for it.. we had a fantastic time at Luke’s Indochine Dinner during Crave last year.. although, perhaps we overindulged on those lovely matched Ross Hill wines. Speaking of which, Ross Hill are back again.. I’m interested to see what wines and dishes they’ll pair up for this dinner.
Arriving at the restaurant, almost hidden away on Riley Street, we’re greeted by the brothers Nguyen. Standing either side of the entrance, Luke and Lewis (a guest appearance all the way from the UK) are tending their respective hawker dishes.
Luke on the grill, is lightly charring his beef and lemongrass skewers, while Lewis carefully tastes and seasons his aromatic beef pho (beef, oxtail, star anise amongst the ingredients.. others held more secretively, even from his brother.. a little bit of sibling rivalry here).
Ushered into the restaurant, we’re greeted by ever cheerful Restaurant Manager, Sarah, who guides us through to the back of the restaurant and a spot in the Red Lily Bar. Somewhat remissly I hadn’t noticed this stylish little cocktail bar on my first outing, so engrossed was I in sampling the new menu and admiring the nostalgic Indochine fit-out (I hear it cost a pretty penny.. the signature ‘red’ design features, spacious interior, gentle lighting, dark wooden tables and cushioned booths, and quirky antiques scattered throughout.. quite different from the original restaurant.. I like it a lot).
A beautiful aperitif awaits us with a flute of bubbles and freshly shucked oysters, Con Hao Sot Me (Pacific Oysters and Sydney Rock Oysters, with a trio of Vietnamese dressings: Tamarind and chilli, Asian shallot and red vinegar, Young coconut juice and kaffir lime).
As more animated diners arrive, the petite Red Lily Bar becomes a little too cosy and Sarah whisks us off to our communal table. We’re ‘first arrivers’ and sneak a look at the evening’s menu.
A wonderful medley of street food dishes. Our appetite is well and truly whetted.
There’s a fun, almost family-like atmosphere in the restaurant. I recognise a few Red Lantern ‘regulars’. Luke, in his black chef uniform and trademark cap, is circling the floor, while a very chicly dressed Pauline Nguyen (Luke’s sister, business partner and ‘heartfelt’ author) chats with guests.
The night’s also an opportunity to make new foodie friends, and we’re soon joined across the table by Genelle and Paula (aka the Food Oracle). They’ve also been taking in the Crave Food events and tell us about an amazing Chinese ‘bush tucker’ dinner they’d enjoyed at Billy Kwong (traditional Cantonese flavours with indigenous Australian ingredients, yabbies, wallaby and wild greens etc). Sounded fantastic.
Luke grabs a microphone, welcomes us, introduces the menu. Yes, contrary to what you might think.. freshly shucked oysters are part of the Vietnamese diet.. not country wide, but in some selected regions. As Luke touches on each of the menu items, it looks like we’re in for a regional food tour.
The Vietnamese street food procession starts. First up, Banh Tom Chien Don (Crispy prawn and shallot rice cakes with lemon pepper dipping sauce), a light, crunchy opener. Nice contrast with the zingy, peppery sauce.
A duo of rice paper rolls arrives: Goi Ca Hoi Cuon (Soft rice paper rolled with smoked salmon, dill and perilla leaf) and Bi Cuon Chay (Soft rice paper rolled with green mango, silken tofu, shitake mushroom and glass noodles).
Fresh, herby, simple. The dipping sauce melds the dishes together.
Lewis’ dish, Pho Bo (Aromatic beef broth served with rice noodles and beef sirloin), that classical Vietnamese beef noodle soup, delicate, yet intensely flavoured. Delicious comfort food.
Another Red Lantern mainstay and ‘must have’ dish is the Muc Rang Muoi (Lightly battered chilli salted squid with fresh lemon and white pepper dipping sauce).
Next time you’re in, grab this dish and a Vietnamese ‘333’ Beer and you’ll see why the Red Lantern team are not allowed to take this dish off the menu.
The crisp, multi-spiced Chim Cut Chien Don (Crispy soy and five spice quail legs) is equally popular and quickly consumed.
Luke’s grilled offering, Nem Nuong (Char grilled beef and lemongrass sugar cane skewers). Marinated beef, finely chopped lemongrass, cooked over the fire. Moist, yumm.. and don’t forget to chew on the sugar cane skewers.. the released flavours heighten the dish.
There’s the beautifully presented and multi textured Banh Khot (Turmeric and coconut rice cakes filled with mung beans, pork and prawn floss, wrapped in lettuce and Vietnamese herbs) as well as Goi Vit (Tea smoked duck and banana blossom salad with Vietnamese herbs).
.. and the Heo Sua Quay (Roasted Suckling Pig coated with preserved bean curd and five spice).
At the Indochine Dinner a year earlier, Luke presented Truu Nau Chao (Lamb Cutlets cooked in preserved bean curd). That dish with its robust, sourish flavour, had been the highlight dish of the night. Tonight’s suckling pig is succulent (slow cooked for 9 hours I hear), the skin crunchy, the addition of the preserved bean curd much more subtle.. and there’s a Pig’s Head on offer..
Martin, the “nose to tail” aficionado on our table, and tragic fan of St Johns, London, puts his hand up politely enquiring whether the Pig’s Head can make its way to our table ? It promptly arrives, ferociously glaring at us.
Chunks of crispy pig skin and fatty gelatinous pork are torn off and any hesitancy from the diners on our table quickly disappears.
The dish is well complemented by Xoai Xanh Muoi Ot (Green mango with salt and chilli paste). Sour, salty, spicy.. the traditional fresh treat you’ll find everywhere, including a daytime trip to our own ‘Vietnam’ in Sydney (ie. have a look in the fruit shops when you venture out to Cabramatta).
Soon after Luke wanders across to our table, he’s received a request from another table for the pig’s tongue. A somewhat sheepish Martin looks up, simply saying, “Sorry Luke, all gone. Loved it.”
Stopping to chat, Luke talks excitedly of his upcoming stint on the Vietnamese version of MasterChef. He’s co-hosting the show, locally called “Vua Dau Bep”, it’s all in Vietnamese (a test of his lingual skills) and production days sound like they are going to be pretty full on. Genelle and Paula also get some hot dining and bar tips for a planned Vietnam trip. With Luke Nguyen sitting on your table, who needs Lonely Planet ?
The dinner nicely rounds off with a sweet serving of Che Gao Nep Socola (Sticky pandan rice dumplings filled with chocolate, served with melon and basil seeds).
Delighting in the Vietnamese street food I realise I’ve forgotten to mention the wines. Yes, Ross Hill have delivered again, taking us through a selection of their high altitude and cool climate produced wines. Starting with their crisp 2011 Ross Hill ‘Jessica and Lily’ Sauvignon Blanc, they moved in parallel with the menu presenting their 2011 Ross Hill ‘Pinnacle Series’ Pinot Gris, the 2011 Ross Hill ‘Maya & Max’ Chardonnay and the 2001 Ross Hill ‘Isabelle & Jack’ Cabernet Franc Merlot. A late addition to the Ross Hill stable, the 2011 Ross Hill Late Harvest Riesling, provides a sweet match up at the end of the meal.
A cracker of a night ? Absolutely. The street food culinary tour, the restaurant’s beautiful Vietnamese colonial decor, the personalised service and fun vibe. Looks like Red Lantern on Riley has pushed its Crown Street sister into the shade. I have a new favourite.
.. and thanks very much to our new found foodie friends, Genelle and Paula.. great food, great company. Enjoy your Vietnam trip !
Red Lantern of Riley
60 Riley Street East Sydney NSW Australia
+61 2 9698 4355