Despite many mediocre meals and the occasional dangerous one food poisoning is an occupational hazard food-writing is fun. Rarely does a dish move me to thoughts of murder and mayhem. That level of ire generally seems a more appropriate reaction to, say, our president than an equally clueless, yet less harmful, chef.
But that was before I ordered Red Lantern's alleged eight-treasure duck. In its authentic form, this special-occasion dish comprises terrinelike slices of braised and roasted (for crisp skin) boned duck filled with glutinous rice studded with symbolic "treasures." These vary, yet they consist mainly of preserved items such as lotus seeds, dried shrimp, and cloud ear mushrooms, the diversity of which reflects the migratory lifestyle of the dish's nomadic Hakka inventors. The plate looks elegant and is full of bold flavors, and the main ingredient is (duh) duck.
Red Lantern's unrecognizable version looked and tasted like the mélange that Chinese restaurants in the U.S. call happy family, a mildly sauced stir-fry of ingredients that usually do not go together; it is designed for patrons who do not know what they want except for overkill. This upscale chop suey priced at a hefty $15 consisted of exactly three chunks of overcooked (stringy and greasy) duck plus chicken, beef, roast pork slices so hard they could be used as boogie boards, a few equally overcooked small shrimp, several vegetables (including three real treasures, black mushroom caps), and surimi, which is no one's idea of treasure.
3176 Commodore Plz, Coconut Grove; 305-529-9998
Open for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.; dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:00 to 11:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:00 p.m. to midnight.
Many restaurants mislabel, but this was akin to ordering an intricate wedding cake and getting a case of Twinkies. The temptation to convert wok to deadly weapon would have been irresistible if I had known whether the chef or the management deserved braining. However, during my second visit, more cautious ordering paid off. An order of crispy roast duck was nicely flavored, albeit rather dry from reheating, and featured duck instead of mixed meats.
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In terms of authenticity, the news is not all bad. Indeed, when New Times last reviewed Red Lantern, in June 2002, it was given a "diamond-in-the-rough" rating. But even though it does serve spring rolls rather than Americanized egg rolls, and the plumply stuffed pork and cabbage version was tasty, the precious-gem potential has diminished over the years.
Best item was "shrimp with special-salt." Though this eatery's version used dried chilies to impart heat rather than the fresh ones used in southern China the butterflied, lightly battered, shell-on, headless shrimp were properly salt/pepper-crusted and flavored as this Cantonese classic should be. Orange beef, a preparation that varies even in its native country, was also a flavorful take on the heavily sauced version. But a less mundane offering clams with black-bean sauce disappointed; the salty gravy was full of broken shells a worrisome sign. Indeed two clams were rank.
Red Lantern's kung pao chicken was also unimpressive. A few dried hot peppers were visible, but heaven only knows where the heat went. Also absent were the dish's typical scallions and any sweet-sour hint of vinegar or tomato. The stuff wasn't merely bland; it was virtually flavor-free. Ma po tofu had the satisfying fire and zest the former plate lacked as well as quality fresh bean curd. Although the menu should note this Szechuan dish listed as "vegetable" is not vegetarian, the inclusion of minced meat was traditional and tasty. The dish's veggie garnish of carrots and peas, however, was neither.
Another worrisome sign: This Grove old-timer is scheduled to become a Chinese/Thai/Indonesian eatery. With critically acclaimed pan-Asian Ginger Grove barely a block away, such diversification seems suicidal. It might also be a misdirection of time and talent better spent striving for something our town needs more of: world-class Chinese cuisine, rather than dishes that are just pretty good for Miami.