Local Eats: Lantern - Chapel Hill, NC

One of my sponsors happens to be my brother-in-law, Larry J Moray. Larry and Jin Yi (my sister) decided to take me and my other sister Si Nae out to a nice dinner at the Lantern. The Lantern has quickly become the "go to" spot for delicious local food in Chapel Hill. They feature some exciting appetizers and amazing entrees and in my honest opinion, the best deserts in town. This was our meal in all it's glory. Foodies beware, there are dishes here that will make you drool on the keyboard.

North Carolina Blue Crab Cakes
Maybe it's because I carry a large camera and notepad, maybe it's because my Jin and Lar are regulars, whatever the case may be, the restaurant was so kind to send us out two free apps. This was one of them. Now I LOVE LOVE LOVE blue crab. Turning blue crab into crab cakes at first thought seems like a total travesty. Why ruin a perfect food right? Well, I couldn't be more wrong, the sweetness of blue crab is perfect for crab cakes. My only concern is that they aren't large enough to get just pure crab flavor, and that there wasn't a nice seared crust on the outside of these crab cakes. Other than that, the garlic chives were a nice touch, and the tomatoes really 'popped'!

Chaat - crispy chickpeas and potatoes with tomatoes, pickled red onions and mint chutney
This is one of my favorite apps to get at Lantern. It's a delicious mix of herbs and spices with crispy chickpeas. It's a fun dish with tons of flavor. If I had to order just one app, it would be this.

Fiery Japanese eggplant salad with garlic, chiles and mint
I really liked the flavor of these eggplant, the spice was a bit mute in the dish but the sesame seeds were nice and fresh so they did add a little lingering flavor in your mouth. There are nice hints of mint in the dish which catch you by surprise in such a good way. This may not be my favorite way to prepare japanese eggplant but it was delicious nonetheless.

Thai chicken salad with chiles, lime, roasted peanuts,red onions and crispy noodles
I look back at my notes and I see nothing about this dish. I do remember that it did not strike a chord with me. Of course, when you have bold dishes, a dish like this may not be the most memorable. It wasn't offensive, or bad, it was just the pairing with the other bolder flavors that made this dish difficult to stand out. This would be a great app. salad for the seafood hotpot.

Braised Pork Belly with Daikon Radish
As you might have guessed, this was my favorite appetizer. I love pork belly so much you pretty much can't go wrong feeding it to me. The texture was nice and soft the sweetness was so nice and caramely and the daikon really was a nice clean balance to it all.

Salt and pepper shrimp - fresh wild shrimp with crispy shells, fried jalapenos, coriander and sea salt
I'll come right out of the gates with it. Maybe it's because I've had some stellar salt prawn in LA's Chinatown, but I was just a bit underwhelmed by this dish. The flavors were almost all there, except for the spicy red pepper that should be fried along side this dish. If you were lucky enough to get a bite of the jalepenos it was quite nice, alone the shrimp were just salty shrimp.

Mackerel Tartare
This was the other complimentary appetizer the restaurant sent out for us, and am I SO thrilled they did. You've never tasted raw mackerel so fresh and non-fishy in your life. This nice tartare was so rich and smooth I could almost mistake it with a savory desert. What a nice surprise!

Icy Spicy - Cold Cucumber Soup
Speaking of surprises, this dish wins for best soup of the year. The cool cucumber was perfect for the hot summer, while the bite in the back of the neck from the 'spicy' of 'Icy Spicy' left your appetite screaming for more. My compliments to the chef!

Lemongrass-grilled Niman Ranch beef with cool rice noodles, lettuce, herb salad, roasted peanut-hoisin and chile-lime sauce
This dish had some really exciting flavors going on in it. The chili pepper sauce that comes with the dish really adds a ton of pizazz to the dish when composed. The meat was grilled very well for the dish and each of the different parts of the dish went well wrapped in the lettuce leaves. Is this dish intended to be a wrap? I don't recall, but it seemed right at the time. This is the dish I'd probably have my girlfriend order so I could eat off of her plate while I devoured my dish. It's was very different from all the other entrees in just the right way.

Seafood hotpot- NC shrimp, wild striped bass, diver scallops, fresh squid and clams in broth with slippery noodles, fresh lime leaf and baby bok choy
Much like the Thai chicken salad, this dish just came at the wrong time in my sampling of the entrees. I think if this was the first dish I had tried I would have really loved it. It has all the components of a great dish from fresh seafood, to a nice broth and glass noodles. But, I had just eaten some spicy and sour beef wrapped in a lettuce leaf that was kicking my mouth's ass! So would I order it again? Probably, considering the dish is in fact one of their signature dishes, it is tasty. I just happen to get it at the wrong time.

Vietnamese Cane Creek Farm pork chop with a fried farm egg, spicy cucumber-mint salad, steamed jasmine rice and chile-lime sauce
I must say that this dish seemed very out of place to me. The flavors I guess are asian inspired, but the dish composition was off putting somehow. Frisée, next to hot rice, chile-lime sauce, a thick cut pork chop, some frisée, and topped off with an egg? I didn't know where I was trying to be pulled. It really seemed to be too much of a hodgepodge of conflicting flavors. I will say that the pork chop was awesome and I LOVED the fried egg with it. But, the plate as a whole left me puzzled. This made me think that too much of a good thing is sometimes not all good.

Fried whole North Carolina fish with chiles, garlic, tamarind, fresh lime leaf, carrot salad and jasmine rice
The whole fried fish is another staple dish at Lantern. It's done well 99% of the time, the fish is always fresh, and the flavors are exactly what you might expect. I love this dish and I must say I don't think there is anything they should do differently with it, except maybe serve it with a small bowl of fish consommé. That would send it over the top!

Schezuan pepper-salt and Ginger Spring Onion Sauce
These are the dipping sauces that came with the next dish. Although just calling them dipping sauces does them a certain level of injustice.

Tea and spice smoked local chicken with yang chow pork and shrimp fried rice, local green beans and housemade XO sauce
I really wanted to love this dish. I looked at my smoked chicken, I could smell the smokey aroma rising off of it. I wanted it to be sweet and succulent. . .But, like so many times that you eat chicken, it was over cooked. The flavors were great, but the chicken was dry. I was longing for some rendered chicken fat to dip each bite in, something to get the moist juices back into the meat. Oh well, I guess you just can't win them all. The fried rice was a hit at least!

Clockwise from Left: Hot chocolate cake with preserved local strawberry ice cream | Cherry stone panna cotta with organic sweet cherries and pistachio cookie | Wine poached Sandhill peach with local honey ice cream and blackberry crush | Coconut Cake with Rose Water
Ah, the desserts. There are two things I have always returned to Lantern for over and over again. They have tremendous cocktails and delectable desserts. You can't go wrong with the hot chocolate cake, it oozes molten chocolate as soon as you break through the first layers of the cake. This dessert is served with whatever ice cream flavor is on hand. This night it was preserved local strawberry, and it was delicious AGAIN!

The panna cotta and cherries were to die for. The cherries were the perfect acidity for the smooth panna cotta. The combination was perfect!

Lantern, why are you so good to us? Another two complimentary dishes made their way to our table. First the peaches and honey ice cream. Holy cow, the peaches reminded me of my childhood eating peaches with sugar out of white coffee cups, and the honey ice cream is so good when it hits your lips. Darn I wish I had a pint of that ice cream right now.

And then came the coconut cake with rose water. When we all looked at the dessert menu, I remembered not even considering the coconut cake as a dessert hopeful. I mean how can you pass up a hot chocolate cake and panna cotta? The majority of the table wasn't thrilled with the dish, but I loved how simple it was. The rose water is such a delicate flavor that is very well paired with the coconut shavings on the cake. I loved it and I will never leave coconut in the corner again!

--Joe Kwon

For more info visit Lantern's website.