The most civilised meals have set menus. Ordering a la carte is a state bordering on anarchy. And anarchy is best avoided, especially at meal times. Set menus provide a meal order and clarity, rather than allowing you to bodge something together. Consider it the difference between erecting your own ramshackle shack and having master craftsmen build a palace.
On any given night out with friends, I make no secret of steering the group towards the set menu. That work begins in suggesting restaurants I know to have them.
This work is often met with relief: "I thought no one was going to mention it" and, "Oh, thank God; I didn't know what to order." Set menus remove the fuss and give time back for actually enjoying the meal. If you really like picking everything for yourself, go out for breakfast instead.
Lanterne Rooms, tucked neatly in the bottom of one of those buildings that have transformed Constitution Avenue in Campbell, has two set menus. What a terrific start. We choose to tackle the three-course option ($90 a head, groups up to 10), which offers a neatly contained list of selections to share across each course.
Even less decision making is required if one selects the degustation menu ($120 a head), which is a set menu in the truest sense. Save your decision-making faculties for the well-appointed drinks list.
The three-course menu requires diners to select three entrees from a list of five, and two mains for groups of two to three from a list of seven options.
On the Tuesday night of our reservation, the beef cheek on the mains list was unavailable (we became aware only after trying to select it) and the usual dessert - pandan-infused purple rice pudding - had been replaced with a zabaglione: Italian-style custard served with fresh berries.
By the time, shortly after, the food started arriving, the unavailable choices were far from our minds. The tom yum prawns had a startling freshness, coupled with a lingering zing. They were perfectly moreish.
Next came the ngo hiang, a fried pork roll, served in little segments about a bite and a half in size. It was a relief there was a finite quantity of these, because it would have been difficult to stop yourself from eating them, wrapped in bean-curd skin, forever.
The last entree instalment is a lightly fried tofu. On the inside it is preternaturally smooth and sumptuous; the outside is just the right amount of crispy, and evenly so around each piece.
For the mains - which are served after a well-timed pause - we select the roasted duck breast and the battered eggplant.
The duck segments are small, tender and rich. The taste is how you imagine duck to taste, but so rarely find as good as this. The eggplant, served with a tamarind dressing, has a pleasant kick to accompany a well-rounded textural experience. This was our pick to replace the unavailable beef cheek, but I'm glad that is how the meal played out.
The mains are served with steamed rice and a separate bowl of stir-fried zucchini and broccolini, doused in oyster sauce and pumpkin seeds. These form a solid component to the meal, tasty in their own right without being scene-stealers.
Unexpectedly, a member of the wait staff appears with a bowl of the beef rendang. A complimentary addition to the meal, she says, and one of the house specialities.
I provide this disclaimer before my declaration the beef rendang is superb so you can make up your own mind if I have been bribed. I deny all charges. Each chunk of Angus beef has a melt-in-your-mouth quality, each a moment of reflection and joy. We thought we were full when the bowl arrived, but this dish compels its own eating. Don't believe me? You try it and find something critical to say about it.
The plural in Lanterne Rooms' name is genuine. The space is divided into cosy pockets, each room its own intriguing and beguiling place to stop. Imagine venturing through an imperial palace to the human-sized chambers, with walls that could belong to an FCC house. Annoying group of diners somewhere else in the restaurant? You would hardly know you shared the same service.
There is also acoustic foam under the tables. This should be mandated as part of restaurant licensing requirements. Noise really is no problem. There is a hum of approval - hardly a surprise given the food - but none of the intrusiveness of overheard conversation.
Set menus are really just a culinary trust exercise. Do you trust a restaurant with the shape of your meal or do you need to intervene to tell them how it ought to be done?
Trust them at Lanterne Rooms. Trust them completely and wholeheartedly.
Address: 4/81 Constitution Ave, Campbell
Phone: 6249 6889
Hours: Lunch, Thursday and Friday, noon-2pm; dinner, Tuesday to Saturday, 5.45-10pm
Chef: Aravinth Sriramulu
Noise: Not a problem
Dietary: Range of options
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