Red Lantern on Riley has a designer feel, reminiscent of French Colonial Vietnam. A melange of dainty pendant lights dangle in clusters around the ceiling, basking the restaurant in a golden glow that creates an intimate dining atmosphere. Plush booth seats flank the sides of the main room, whilst a long marble communal table runs down the centre. Guests can choose either a la carte or a series of tasting menus, including the $65 ‘Hanoi Hunger', $80 ‘Saigon Scrumptious' or the $135 Delicious Dalat, which comes with matching wines.
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When a celebrity chef like Luke Nguyen opens a new restaurant, you can bet your bottom dollar that there is going to be a media stir. But is all the hype really deserved? We head to Red Lantern on Riley to test the waters. The combined venture of Nguyen and former Red Lantern Head Chef Mark Jensen, Red Lantern on Riley is located just around the corner from its well-established older sister. While Nguyen continues to man the Crown Street eatery, Jensen steers the Riley ship.
The restaurant is full when we arrive, and as our table is not yet ready, we are quickly swept away to the Red Lily Bar out back. Albeit small, the space is smartly dressed with wooden stools and a marble bar. The wine list features a good mix of international and Australian drops. Initially, we intend to sample a selection of wines but after we order a bottle of the 2009 Artardi ‘Estate' Tempranillo from Rioja – there is no going back. We order another of the same to accompany our meal.
We opt for a la carte, beginning with an entree of rice paper rolls filled with a trio of stuffings - pork and duck terrine, tofu, cabbage, and shiitake mushrooms, and tiger prawn and pork. While they are pretty on the plate, they tend to be lack-lustre in flavour (as rice paper rolls often are). Crispy five-spiced quail and roasted Burrawong peking duck are finger-licking good, but the braised Wagyu beef is disappointing. The hero dish is the crisp skin Burrawong chicken, poached in master stock with ginger and oyster sauce. The portion is generous and the flavours are perfectly balanced.
It is easy to be blown away by the style and professionalism of the restaurant, which runs like a well-oiled machine. Specifically catering to group dining, the restaurant handles the smallest of requests with ease, offering half serves of all dishes and willing to mix, match and substitute to ensure the whole group is happy.
Apart from the ritzy fit-out, Red Lantern on Riley isn't that different from its Crown Street counterpart but, then again, it is a little like ordering a second bottle of the same wine. Why do something differently and risk being disappointed when you can happily enjoy the same thing over and over again?