Business as usual at Lanterne Rooms

Vindaloo steak tataki, soy smoked egg yolk, pickled baby lotus root.
Vindaloo steak tataki, soy smoked egg yolk, pickled baby lotus root.  Photo: Dion Georgopoulos

3 Blamey Crescent Campbell, Australian Capital Territory 2612

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Opening hours Tue - Fri 12 Noon – 2:30 PM 6:00 – 10:00 PM, Sat 6:00 – 10:00 PM
Features Vegetarian friendly, Wheelchair access, Business lunch, Licensed
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Chef Daniel Mark
Seats 70
Payments eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 02 6249 6889

Accepting this is not your main criteria for eating out, you might well find yourself - as I have twice this week - find yourself in the where-to-hold-a-work-dinner conversation. There's no such thing in my particular life, but in the lives of more important people or people who conference, this is an occasionally burning question. Well here's one answer, and don't take it the wrong way: Lanterne Rooms at the Campbell shops. At a time when everything is so boppy and squishy and noisy, when everything is so much about the Dazzling Night Out, you'll find a calm at Lanterne. Not a boring calm, but a sophistication, a kind of feng shuied (sure it's a word!) elegance and space. Dark wood floors, comfortable wooden chairs with soft bums, big wooden fans moving the air, heavy curtains dividing small spaces, a reed ceiling, smart mid-blue and red blocks of colour; it feels like an exclusive Malaysian club. You won't think, oh no I've taken my big city colleague to a carpeted dull relic! You will be proud to show them Lanterne because everything is so bang on - the set-up, the service and the food. Now I have to add the rider, that this doesn't really have the feel of a restaurant focused on a work dinner clientele; it feels more like an intimate couples place, or small celebratory events, perhaps. Either way, it works.

Lanterne is a long-stayer now, part of the Chairman group, and some of things on the menu - tom yum prawns with rockmelon, Kampung style beef curry - have been there since the beginning or near. But we're pleased to see some new dishes, and more pleased still to see how good they are.

Vindaloo steak tataki with smoked soy cured egg yolk ($19.50) is a surprising and I think successful dish; perhaps purists might differ given the unconventional presentation of vindaloo. The beef has been marinated in the curry flavours, before searing on the edge, then thin sliced, so pink. On top are spoons of thick vindaloo curry paste with yoghurt, a whole lot of chopped baby lotus root, all pale crunchy and fresh, and micro coriander. It's good-looking, spare and simple.

Chicken Percik, Sambal and cucumber.
Chicken Percik, Sambal and cucumber.  Photo: Dion Georgopoulos

Otak otak basket ($30) is another new dish, and it's a hit for us. Squares of aromatic seafood cake - the Malaysian otak otak - are served in what's described as a "pappadum" basket, but is a big round of puffed cracker, like a prawn cracker but I think we heard our guy describe it as a chickpea puff, not sure. There are lovely pieces of pineapple, plus pickled cucumber and loads of watercress, with a gentle sour note, and in the fish cake itself lots of heat and lemongrass. We really like this.

We started with prawn crackers, by the way, made more exciting with a hot and bright green ginger flavoured dipping sauce.

If you order Lanterne's version of san choy bow ($19.50) you might be taken by the inventiveness but for us the flavours feel difficult - quail meat has been smoked with Jasmine tea, and chopped up small with lap cheong - the Chinese sausage, and shitake. The medley sits in baby whitlof leaves, healthy, sturdy and bitter.

Mango pudding, pomelo, pineapple and coconut granita.
Mango pudding, pomelo, pineapple and coconut granita. Photo: Dion Georgopoulos

Lanterne looks to Malaysia as the starting point for its menu, and chicken percik ($34) is offered as another take on a popular Malaysian dish - the easiest way to think of it, our waiter suggests, is like chicken satay. It's not satay but it's chicken grilled with a coconut marinade. At Lantern, it's been charred, sliced and served with coriander and Vietnamese (I think) mint. It's a simple, fresh dish, if not exciting.

Tofu and mushrooms with bonito soy ($16) is big squares of fried tofu with mushrooms underneath and deep-fried crunchy things on top, which turn out to be enoki. I love this; it reminds me of the Japanese agedashi tofu, although the flavours here are more subtle.

Lanterne has an excellent wine list, including by the glass - with a couple of French whites, and great locals offered by the glass (Eden Road riesling, Ravensworth sangiovese), and a helpful arrangement by the bottle in categories such as "crisp minerally whites", floral aromatic whites", and "rich textural whites". It's focused and done properly. Our focus, though, is on the sake, where the tasting notes are more useful than I have seen.

Head chef Daniel Mark.
Head chef Daniel Mark. Photo: Dion Georgopoulos

Dessert is great, too. There are only two desserts. Little pastry cups of a kind of frozen peanut cheesecake with pandan jam on top; and mango sago pudding, with coconut and pineapple on sago, and mango underneath. It's beautiful, like a light and poppy fruit salad.

Service, too, has been helpful. Everyone who visits the table seems well-versed on the menu and talks helpfully about it. In sum, the operation feels very under control and in sure hands.

The lowdown

Lanterne Rooms looks to Malaysia as the starting point for its menu.