Up until now, I have not been a big fan of the Lantern. I have eaten there half a dozen times since they opened, and almost all of the meals have been highly forgettable. One of the dining experiences was so bad that I sent a long email to the owner detailing the troubles that we'd had, and she graciously responded by sending me a gift certificate that covered dinner for four. However, when I went back the next time to use the gift certificate, the meal though not horrible, but still highly forgettable. So while I have enjoyed going to the bar for late-night cocktails and noshes, I haven't eaten dinner in the dining room for a few years.
However I recently had to make reservations for a large party of foodies who were here from out of town, and because of a number of factors (the group's particular culinary interests, some food restrictions, location), it really only made sense to eat at Lantern. So I booked reservations for a party of 12, and crossed my fingers. It turned out to be a wonderful and memorable dining experience. For large parties they do a prix fixe menu, but they do not limit your menu options very much. It's $55 per person, and they bring out all 5 appetizers family style, and then every diner chooses their entree and desert. There were at least 5 or 6 entree choices available, and all the deserts were available, so I did not feel that they were taking away the most interesting or expensive menu options.
I really appreciated the way they did the appetizers. Rather than bringing them all out at once, they sent out a couple at a time, so they came in waves. First we had Salt & Pepper Shrimp and some amazing dumplings. Next came a divine and perfect heirloom tomato salad. Finally we were brought some Vietnamese spring rolls, and the piece de resistance of the appetizers, a crispy chickpea chaat that had wonderfully intense spice, and was for me characterized by an amazing attention to the dish's texture and mouth feel. This was cuisine at a level I usually don't find in Triangle Area restaurants. Don't get me wrong, we have a lot of great local restaurants that turn out wonderful, flavorful food, but the chaat was one of the most thoughtful dishes I have had in a long time.
Our entrees were all good, though nothing could have topped the apps (first courses are always my favorite party of the meal). I got a seared beef filet that came on skewers, with crispy fried spinach and a ponzu sauce. Again, the texture of the spinach was amazing. The beef was good, though it could have been a little more rare, and a little more flavorful. I thought it would have been nice to have a sauce with more going on than the ponzu. Everyone in our party was happy with our entrees. The only other main course I tried was the vegetarian tomato and vegetable stew with local paneer, and it was delicious and flavorful.
We were impressed with the deserts too. For me the standouts were a steamed yuzu pudding with soft cream, blueberries and blackberries; and a molten chocolate cake that saved itself from being a cliche through its pairing with a phenomenal preserved strawberry ice cream.
We had several bottles of wine, all of which where very good. The one that I want to see if I can find in stores was a chilled Burgundy, the Domaine Voillot pinot noir.
I have to say, I left the restaurant trying to think of the next time I'd have an excuse to dine there again with a large party. I think it's true that the food and service were generally better than they had been on my previous trips to the restaurant. But I really felt that dining there as a large group provided the restaurant with the opportunity to show us what they can do. It was one of the more exciting Triangle restaurant excursions I've had in awhile, and I am glad to have a new local favorite.