Succumbing to peer pressure from all sides, the wife and I finally made it to Lantern. I'll admit that I have a prejudice against trendy expensive pseudo-Asian cuisine, but even factoring out my prejudice as best I can I think there's a legitimate two-fold criticism: 1) The place is damn expensive, 2) The place is not really that good. Aiming for a straight Chinese meal, we had the pork and chive dumplings, bang bang chicken, tangerine beef, and tea-roasted chicken. Here's the breakdown:
Dumplings: LAME -- not only worse than dumplings I have made at home, but worse than dumplings I made at home that very afternoon for lunch (my wife and I are very proficient dumpling makers -- soup dumplings, potstickers, you name it). The skin was mushy, the filling was tasteless, and the portion was small. I'll admit that the badness of these dumplings was a pleasant vindication of our own efforts.
Bang Bang Chicken: This is also a dish we make. I usually place the chicken on a bed of jullianned lettuce or lightly pickled cucumber; Lantern's bed of buckwheat noodles was too heavy for a dish already tending toward heaviness. Still, a decent dish: hearty and spicy.
Tangerine beef: The sauce seemed to me a bit acrid (soy + peel), and price was as hefty as the abovementioned buckwheat noodles: $18 for a couple small pieces of beef. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't good enough to be repeated at let's say $6 an ounce.
Tea-smoked chicken: The chicken was tender and fragrant. Not exciting, but well enough prepared.
The least forgivable thing was the rice: mushy and I imagine fairly low-grade. I guess Lantern assumes that Westerners don't care a whole lot about rice. As far as I'm concerned -- and many Chinese would agree with me -- rice makes or breaks a meal.
I realize that this food is supposed to be Chinese with a subtle sophisticated Western twist, but I didn't find it particularly subtle or sophisticated, or perhaps subtle only in comparison to the kind of restaurants that sling General Tso's and fried rice. For truly superb Chinese food at 1/3 the price, I recommend a roadtrip to A&J Restaurant, with branches in Virginia and Rockville, Maryland; these are the closest great Chinese restaurants I know. Closer to home, I recommend Thai Palace in Chapel Hill and Korean Garden in Cary. Ambience aside, I consider both of these fundamentally more subtle and sophisticated than Lantern. Waraji, my choice as best restaurant in the Triangle, is in an entirely different league.
With a busted furnace giving us the perfect excuse to go out two nights in a row, we tried Suchi, an Indian restaurant in Cary. Once again, Chatham Square comes up a winner. I'll admit that the meal was uneven -- the palak paneer, galub jamon, and ros malai were lame by any standard -- but the all-important naan was just about the best I've had in America. (Those availing themselves of the buffet should order the naan fresh from the oven; it's well worth the additional $1.95). I imagine that one could cobble together an excellent meal once one knew the menu.