Bottom line, eating out has become both more fraught and more precious. It's as though, to use an irritating phrase, a new social contract has infiltrated the dining world. Now, we feel like we're doing someone some good by spending money and supporting a local business. And restaurants have a new task of caring about our health. Which, I theorise, makes us all feel more connected and more emotional, is teary taking it too far?
I am convinced this mood has washed over Josiah Li, owner at Lanterne Rooms (and Chairman and Lilotang). He's positively zen. I thought we had slipped in tonight unnoticed, which is always the aim. But within half an hour Li appears tableside to chew the fat. This is surprising and unusual. Recognition is an occupational hazard despite our efforts not to give identifying information on booking. But normally when we're spotted there's a kind of polite pretence or distance and we all carry on as normal. Tonight it's different and we're convinced it's a side effect of coronavirus. He's telling us things have changed for him in ways that are both subtle and profound and it's now all about community - for Li this is the community that has revolved around the best of Canberra restaurants for the best part of 25 years. My guess is all of you regular diners will know what he's talking about and will share this sense that as the world shatters into shards, we are changing in good ways and becoming freshly connected with the people and things most closely around us. But now I stray off topic.
There is a frustrating thing about the return to dining by the square metre. And that's the fact that to stay alive restaurants have turned to set-menu dining. This has always been my least favorite way to eat. I like small shared dishes but I don't like starter-entree-main-dessert which ends up being way too much food, annoyingly formal and inflexible and quite expensive. It also means you have to leave the kids at home. None of this suits us and it has kept us away from regular eating out in recent weeks. But so be it, they've got to survive somehow so we settle in and choose from the options in tonight's set menu ($65 three courses, tasting menu at $85).
Panfries pork rolls are a bit ungainly - a large roll in a bean-curd wrapper sliced into chunks. But despite the lack of delicacy in the presentation, it's robust, aromatic and sets you up for a substantial meal full of the intense, hot and aromatic flavours of Malaysia.
The tom-yum-infused prawns are unctuous, with a lovely gentle batter, clingy and fresh. The strips of fresh rock melon and apple balance the richness. This is a dish that epitomises the things Lanterne has always done so well - using apple for freshness, rock melon for that slightly funky Southeast Asian edge, and a focus on well-handled seafood.
I have noted sheep whey vodka in my notes but am struggling to recall why, given we are drinking prosecco as usual. Actually, no sooner we reflexively order prosecco, despite the very classy wine list, that I'm remembering this is a place you can get sake, which I've come to think of as the most superior drink of any. Too late, but another at our table goes happily in this direction.
Lanterne moved from the Campbell shops to its new Campbell 5 location in late 2019 and despite the unexciting apartment block where it now lives, the fit-out feels really good. They've divided the space into three dining areas, separated by those round doorways that remind you of Greek islands and the 1970s, those arches that we all rushed to demolish 30 years ago. A false ceiling floats low, keeping things intimate and it feels good.
We tackle the whole fish "tiga rasa" tonight, since it's a night for setting aside old reluctances, where we might usually have ordered a more accessible dish such as the soy-glazed spatchcock. The whole fish has comes snap deep fried, and sitting up on its bed of lemon grass, ginger, spring onion and chilli, with beans and cauliflowers. It's hot, sweet and sour, explosive. It's clean and simple. And it's a very active meal, since you've got to fish out the bits of meat from the bones and get stuck in in a way that makes you know you're eating. This is the good and the bad of whole fish.
The curry, by contrast, is quite mild - loads of very tender meat chunks, with curry leaves and potatoes in a thin gravy. Alongside there is a pan of green beans rich with bacon.
The pandan rice cake is warm with that unmistakable gluey texture, not sweet in the slightest, with mousse and roasted coconut. This feels like a simple spare dessert. The pineapple pannacotta with pineapple granita and candied pineapple is also not sweet. It's a really appealing study in this fruit.
Service is excellent tonight, as always. Lanterne remains a top destination. It's not casual dining, but has a relaxed and neighbourly feel tonight which suits us to a T.
Address: 81 Constitution Avenue, Campbell
Hours: Dinner only, Tuesday to Saturday, two sittings 6pm and 7.30pm.
Owners: Josiah Li and Daniel Mark
Chef: Daniel Mark
Vegetarian: Good options
Noise: No problem