Lantern: Chapel Hill, NC
With this post, I bring you to Chapel Hill Week(s): the week or so you’re going to see only Chapel Hill related posts due to a series of weekends in the delightful North Carolina Piedmont college town. The fact that, before last weekend, I had never visited Chapel Hill astounds me: I’m from Atlanta, I now live in Roanoke, and the town in smack dab between the two. While I’ve driven through the Triangle before, I’d never stopped in them, never eaten in them, and never bought records in them (I had no idea what I was missing–ignorance is not bliss!). But, thanks to the Sebadoh reunion(ish) tour and the 2011 Mountain Goats tour, I found myself faced with the pleasure of discovering the food scene in Carborro/Chapel Hill over a period of two different weekends. One of those weekends is in the past tense, the other is to come, so if you have any suggestions, feel free to bounce them my way!
For the first post, I’m going to start with a bang (though I’ve sampled thus far has been beyond stellar), with Lantern, a local-foods-oriented restaurant in Chapel Hill proper. The other week when the 2011 James Beard Nominees were announced, I immediately scanned to the Southeast awards (I’m still an Atlantan at heart), and noticed, nestled among Hugh Acheson of Athens, GA’s Five and Ten and Atlanta restaurant Restaurant Eugene’s Linton Hopkins, Chapel Hill’s Andrea Reusing, the executive chef at Lantern. Impressed with a quick peruse of the website’s menu and the positive Yelp reviews (not to mention the backing of a JB nomination), Lantern quickly hit the #1 where-I-want-to-eat-in-Chapel-Hill spot. However, upon calling on a Thursday afternoon to make a Saturday reservation, I was to be disappointed: the restaurant was already booked.
However, Lantern, I was informed, does have a bar–first come first serve–so we were welcome to try our luck there. Saturday rolled around and G & I drove down to the city, checked in at our cheap-o hotel, and wandered downtown to see what we could see. After buying a few records at CD Alley and browsing a few vintage stores, I spotted Lantern. Though it was still early (6 pm, maybe), we decided to give the bar a shot, get a drink or two & gnosh on an appetizer. Entering the restaurant, I panicked a little–no bar in sight, only a well lit white table cloth establishment with an assortment of mostly older, intellectual-looking couples. Definitely not what I expected from the website. And, yes, the restaurant was packed: not a table in site. G inquired about the bar and we were directed to the back of the dining room and up a flight of steps. At the top of the stairs sat the bar in all its dark, plush red glory. Miraculously, two seats remained at the bar.
While I rarely remember to document the interior of bars and restaurants, I was struck by the space, feeling instantly at home by the paper lanterns and dark bar and plush chairs arranged behind us. Plus the crowd was younger and diverse–several children were there with their parents, graduate students clinked cocktails together in praise of the weekend, professors, I’m sure, lined the tables. Our drinks, the Strange Acquaintance, was delicious. A take on a whiskey sour, the drink consisted of whiskey, ruby port, lemon, Blenheim’s Ginger Ale, and egg whites. It was well balanced and leaned toward the tart, refreshing side, a perfect accompaniment to Asian-influenced food. Good start to an evening for sure.
To split, we ordered two dishes, the first being the Coconut Oil Wild North Carolina Prawns with Curry Leaves and Black Pepper. The premise of the dish was simple–prawns, curry leaves, black pepper–but the finished plate was nuanced, the sweetness of the shrimp contrasting with the curry leaves’ earthy bitterness, the black pepper’s slight bite. Often, the simple things are the best when executed well, and this dish exemplified that.
The second dish we ordered was the Korean Fried Chicken with Sweet Chili Garlic Sauce and Pickled Jicama. Let me premise this: I am a total pushover for sweet chili garlic sauce. I buy the stuff in the biggest bottles you can find in the Asian grocery stores and have been known to drench everything in it. I loved it before hipsters knew what Sriracha is and, if they could figure out that it existed, it’d definitely be the new Red Rooster. That aside, this chicken was killer good. Tender and juicy and full of the flavor of chicken, the skin was fried to crispy perfection, the refreshing jicama the perfect accompaniment to the tangy-garlic sauce. I could have eaten a bucket of it. And, trust me, G & I fought over the skin.
While I didn’t know what to expect, Lantern outshone (pun intended) my expectations. While you can’t get a reservation at the bar, it’s where I’d recommend eating–the energy up there is so perfect for the food. The dining room itself was a little too sedate for me, especially given the *pow* of flavor in Chef Reusing’s dishes. Our bartender was knowledgeable about the food, about drinks, and ran a tight service, whisking plates away as soon as they were licked clean and accommodating the families who brought their kids, making sure that there was a good spot for them to be comfortable in without encroaching on anyone’s space or night out. I’m hoping to be able to return to Lantern to eat a full meal sometime soon, but for the coming weeks I’ll have to be sated with the memory of perfectly crisped chicken and a spicy-tart mixed drink.
423 W Franklin St
Chapel Hill, NC 27516