Luke Nguyen raises another red lantern

The first time John Newton and noodlies, Sydney food blog sat down for a meal it was April 2003. He wanted to review an authentic Vietnamese restaurant for the Sydney Morning Herald. I took him to Thanh Mai, a newly opened place in Canley Heights.  To this day, John is still struck by its wild Vietnamese decor, as he wrote in the review :

“At the back of the restaurant, on glass shelves along a mirrored wall, is a dazzlingly colourful plastic floral extravaganza, flanked by two almost life-size plastic date palms. A handful of plastic plants is kitsch. A wall full is a bold statement.”

Once he got used to the peculiar Vietnamese eye for decor, I think I can say he liked the food.

Almost a decade later we’re back at another Vietnamese restaurant. At John’s invitation, we’re chewing the fat at Luke Nguyen’s latest – Red Latern on Riley.  Since that first meal, Vietnamese food has exploded east from the Cabramatta ghetto.  And  Luke Nguyen currently leads that charge, firstly with Red Lantern in Surry Hills followed by his popular SBS TV cooking show.  Kudos should also go to others in the brigade including Angie Hong of the original Thanh Binh in Cabramatta and then Newtown,  Carl and Kim-Dung Robinson of the now closed Old Saigon, firstly in Darlinghurst and then Newtown.  What they all have in common is fluency in English and a lot of charisma.

Where Thanh Mai was kitsch on steroid, Red Lantern on Riley is a study in straight jacket subtlety.  The entrance is discrete, no blazing advertising neon signs here, look carefully and you might see stylised lanterns in the glass doors panels of the floor to ceiling wooden door.   Once inside it’s tasteful tiled floors, dark wood furniture and subdued lighting.  Elegant yes, for me the minimal hand takes the intended colonial French reference into Tuscany territory.

goi cuon red lantern on riley

I like the menu which is a good balance between Vietnamese standards and other home style dishes.  We decide to order a mix.  The three goi cuon (fresh Vietnamese rolls) are precision sliced into six bite-sized pieces, sparing guests the conundrum of whether to double dip or not into the hoisin peanut sauce.  The goi cuon looks and tastes the part with garlic chives poking through, the prawns pink and visible and perilla mint, a favourite of mine, adds extra colour and taste.

goi tom thit red lantern on riley

Goi tom thit (salad with prawn and pork) is a standout with the bean sprouts and sliced carrot especially crunchy and flavoursome, which means they’re fresh and haven’t been sitting too long in the fish sauce dressing.  A unique, and delicious twist is the use of bbq pork instead of boiled pork belly, giving the dish an additional smoky flavour – ingenious.

ca kho red lantern on riley

Ca kho (fish braised in fish sauce) is one of my favourite home style dishes.  The flaky fish, usually catfish, is cooked slowly in predominantly fish sauce.  Nothing is better than a mouthful of the dark skin and white flesh, both salty and sweet, with a mouthful of white rice.  And it does taste delicious.  Red Lantern uses salmon fillet which is less flaky, and together with the lack of skin, niggles me.

rau muong red lantern on riley

Rau muong (Vietnamese water spinach) fried in tau hu (fermented tofu) is a particularly favourite dish in country towns and Buddhist temples.  Here, it’s lightly fried so the leaves are not mushy, while the stalk maintains crunchiness.  Mothers always go overboard with the fermented tofu making the dish just too salty, here it’s the other extreme, the tofu is barely noticeable.

spatchcock red lantern on riley

The soft lighting creates as wonderful intimate atmosphere but is a nightmare for noodlies with my limited photography skills.  The photo above doesn’t do this dish justice at all.  It’s a delicious looking and tasting dish; gleaming chargrilled spatchcock contrasts nicely with the light tangy salad.

banh cam red lantern on riley

Vietnamese desserts are a challenge to the uninitiated.  Like Thanh Mai’s decor, it’s heavy-handed especially when it comes to sweetness – after all we make our coffee with condensed milk.  Red Lantern on Riley desserts are the most radical departure from the ‘authentic’.   Banh cam (orange cake) is a golden sesame ball with a largely hollow centre that holds yellow soy bean filling.  Here, the filling is soursop and the balls are served with black sesame ice cream.  As a fan of the traditional execution, I’m torn.  While I understand keeping it traditional is probably too challenging for non-Vietnamese diners, the deconstruction here is a step too far.  Where the original is too sweet, this hovers on the plain side.

chuoi chien red lantern on riley

The chuoi chien execution is much more successful, the coconut rice-crumbed fritters offer more texture and taste than the more traditional plain batter.

com nep red lantern on riley

This dish looks stunning – dark com nep  (sweet sticky rice) blends with the plate radiating deliciousness.  I’m used a much firmer consistency for com nep, here it maintains the wonderful, dark colour but is more gluggy than I’d like.  I’m more used to the com nep served with a simple sugar, coconut and yellow soy bean topping.  Like banh cam, for me this execution is one step too far.

Judging Red Lantern on Riley on how faithful it is to home Viet is unfair.  It’s clear that the restaurant doesn’t set out to exclusively cater for Australian-Vietnamese diners, if it did they’d open in Viet heartland.  Instead this East Sydney restaurant succeeds in making Vietnamese food accessible to the rest of Sydney.  To do that, it involves making compromises.

In his recent Good Living review Terry Durack said it best:

“Red Lantern on Riley ups the ante with its enticing space, sense of occasion and efficiently paced service. This is Vietnamese food that’s been refined and romanced, with a bit of Sydney style and energy thrown in. For those not prepared to get to Cabramatta, or able to get to Hanoi, it’s a very easy way to immerse yourself in the good food of Vietnam.”

Red Lantern on Riley
60 Riley St, East Sydney
Ph: 02 9698 4355

Below is an interview noodlies recorded with Luke Nguyen in October 2011 on his love for Cabramatta.

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