A match ... Spicy daikon and carrot give the marinated scallops and calamari with vegetable achar and watercress dish a real kick. Photo: Jay Cronan
'Excuse me? .. Yes, you look great, too, can we order now? ... Sorry, over here ... our meal, we just want to order it!"
Sound familiar? This is modern dining - loud spaces; reverberating sounds zinging off bare floors, open, smoky kitchens, having to yell above the din of competing music back of house, the bar and the floor, waiters who seem more like celebrities than quiet figures guiding you through the night.
There is so much choice among these tantalising-sounding starters and it feels as though there's been more change in the entrees since I was last here, so we launch in with four of them and share just one main.
I know it's a new scene out there and, in general, it is to be celebrated but sometimes you just want to eat and catch up with your dining companions rather than your waiting team and their playlists.
Fusion ... The crispy tofu and eggplant with roasted tomatoes and black sesame brings a touch of Tuscany and Asia. Photo: Jay Cronan
It's all so very high energy and, frankly, sometimes tiring, and, after a week of eating out in trendsetting places in Melbourne and Sydney, I feel the need for a hearing test and some yoga to settle the system down.
Which is why I (quietly) rejoice in the atmosphere tonight at the Lanterne Rooms. It's not that it's full of old folk or dating, nor is it old-fashioned or conservative in its decor and feel - on the contrary, it's modern bare-floored, dark-wood Malaysian chic with big fans on the ceilings - but it's more that there's a sense of calm and elegance. There's no tap routine when you walk in and no fanfare at all. We're just quietly shown to our table and the night begins.
I always think of the Lanterne Rooms as a new place so it surprised me that Josiah Li and Jeffrey Shim have been here five years now, in this Campbell sister restaurant of the Chairman and Yip and Malamay, so they're through the heady early years and cementing Lanterne Rooms as one of the capital's best places to eat.
Welcoming .... Daniel Mark, head chef of the Lanterne Rooms. Photo: Jay Cronan
The menu is weighted towards entrees and sharing is encouraged. There is so much choice among these tantalising-sounding starters and it feels as though there's been more change in the entrees since I was last here, so we launch in with four of them and share just one main.
That said, the slow-cooked Blackmore wagyu beef curry ($33.50) has been a dead-set joy when we've had it before, so I indulge my love affair with all things beef once again. There's something intense about this dish, a rich shrimp-paste umami meatiness here. It's "Kampung style", which must translate to freaking awesome in Malay.
Back with the starters, cured ocean trout on fennel and carrot confit ($18.50) is a crossover dish. It has this crisp Japanese look to it, with very tidy knife skills in the trout, and, alongside, the Euro accompaniments - slow-cooked carrot and fennel. The fish is beautifully flavoured and presented, with quite thick cuts so there's plenty going on; the sweetness of the carrot gives the dish depth, and the fennel is an aniseed kicker. A tidy little entree.
Beacon ... Lanterne Rooms is a guiding light for dining. Photo: Jay Cronan
Our questions are answered without song and dance and I'm noticing the waiter quietly watching over his room without feeling the urge to sit down with us and join the conversation. I'm liking it.
The wine list has been pared back a bit since last time, with a shorter list of about a dozen each white and red, but it's all available by the glass. The main issue with a small list is getting a good range, and having so many open can be a challenge for preserving the wine's freshness, but we had four wines and they were all in good shape. Here, they have loads of locals (one from this reviewer, so deal with that as you must) across many varieties such as riesling, chardonnay, marsanne (me), pinot noir, graciano and a cab sav from Ken Helm. We range over multiple glasses but the best match is Mount Majura's peppery graciano ($11 a glass) with the curry. Try this combo. Who would have thought an innocuous Spanish variety made in Canberra would marry so well with a Malaysian curry?
Duck rolls with kaffir lime ($17.50) are a little obvious, presented like spring rolls. Sure, duck is great and, in a light crispy wrapper, it is pretty neat and then the intense limey kaffir leaf - yes, it's all great and so comforting you could line them up, but ... umm, forgot my line of reasoning there; they are very, very edible.
It's a toss-up which of the last two entrees is the star tonight. Crispy tofu and eggplant with roasted tomatoes and black sesame is a textural dish. The tofu is so crispy on the outer rim and so creamy within, the pungency of eggplant and the acidic sweetness of tomato like summer coming in Tuscany but the black sesame paste brings it all back to Asia town, that nutty, bitter taste cutting through and seasoning the rest of the dish.
Scallops and calamari with vegetable achar and watercress ($18.50) is lovely. The chunky, spicy daikon and carrot give the dish a real kick and are a nice take on the classic shredded achar salad. The seafood is tender and plump - love the scallops' earthiness and the sweetness of the calamari. A well-put-together plate of food; so much flavour yet ultimately remaining a simple arrangement.
We drift into the desserts, where Indian kulfi ice-cream with peppered pineapple ($14) is a very sweet and intense pairing, the strong flavour of cardamom cutting through the pepperiness cloaking the pineapple. A full-on dessert yet, again, it's just a few well-paired flavours doing most of the lifting.
The room is full as we get up to leave and everyone seems to be having a good time. The evening ends as it starts - politely, professionally and quietly.
- 02 62496889
- Cuisine - Malaysian, Asian
- Features - BYO, Wheelchair access, Vegetarian friendly
- Chef(s) - Daniel Mark
- Owners - Josiah Li and Jeffrey Shim
- Cards accepted - AMEX, Cash, Diners Club, Mastercard, EFTPOS
- Opening Hours - Lunch Tuesday to Friday noon-2pm, dinner Tuesday to Saturday 6-10pm
- Seats - 70 inside
- Author - Bryan Martin