At the end of a Coconut Grove street that boasts alfresco Indian and Italian dining, a giant log cabin-styled sports bar, and a Spanish restaurant lavishly designed to replicate the town of La Mancha, Red Lantern stands downtroddenly apart. The French-doored storefront is blockaded by banquettes on the inside, and by a sandwich board pasted with tattered, faded photos of menu items on the outside. A worn red awning over the entrance, plastered with dirt, practically dares you to come in. If I didn't recall how good the food had been during my prior visit some years back, I'm not sure I would have. That's a problem, and probably why Red Lantern doesn't seem to be doing much business.
What a shame, because once you step into the clean, sparse, tastefully decorated 45-seat dining room, hints of Red Lantern's diamond-in-the-rough potential begin to shine through. The waitstaff's amiable, helpful ways, adroit tableside serving skills, and consistently attentive service bring to light more bright facets, and by the time you've sampled an adequate number of the freshly cooked-to-order dishes and noted the reasonable prices (most entrées are $10 to $17, and half that at lunch), you'll likely see Red Lantern for the gem of a Chinese restaurant that it is.
Most Cantonese standards can be found here, starting with a won ton soup sporting half a dozen small, delicate, puck-shaped dumplings bobbing in a chicken broth scented with sesame oil. Red Lantern's "specialty soup" likewise possessed a sesame accent, the hot-and-sour-type brown stock burdened with a bit too much cornstarch, but well-stocked with black mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and meaty strips of chicken breast and roast pork.
3176 Commodore Plaza, Coconut Grove
305-529-9998. Open Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.; Friday from 11:30 a.m. till midnight; Saturday 4:00 p.m. to midnight; Sunday 5:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m.
A pair of spring rolls wrapped round cabbage and pork were crisply fried, while pot stickers and "vegetable pastry rolls" came steamed, the latter a quartet of thin, crêpe-like wraps made from bean curd, plumped with mushrooms and water chestnuts, and attractively interspersed on the plate with bright green-leafed bulbs of baby bok choy. Red Lantern's signature starter featured four sturdy iceberg lettuce cups that our waitress filled tableside, first by drizzling with hoisin sauce, then deftly spooning a wondrous mound of minced chicken breast sautéed with bits of onion, snow peas, carrot, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, and fish sauce; each gets topped with chopped peanuts. These "lettuce pockets," also available with pork or seafood, are supposed to feed four, and they're generously enough portioned to do so, though with a little determination I believe a twosome can tackle them.
General Tso's chicken, charged with a not-too-sweet and teasingly piquant sauce blanketing moistly fried pieces of breaded breast, arrived at our table along with equally successful entrées such as steamed snapper with a garlic, ginger, and scallion-boosted black bean sauce, and tender morsels of spicy beef in a "bird's nest" of fried potato. Yang chow fried rice, flecked with shrimp, chicken, roast pork, ham, scallions, and peas, shines a beacon on Red Lantern's strengths -- fresh, full-flavored, but subtle in the use of soy and other dominating Asian seasonings. Similarly sprightly fried rice can be ordered baked in a whole pineapple or, for a more savory take, steamed in lotus leaf, which affords the grains a smoky tea taste.
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Less routine menu picks include the purportedly aphrodisiac delicacy of shark's fin soup, wherein the cartilage of a shark's dorsal, pectoral, and tail fin are used to both flavor and thicken the broth -- "soupfin shark" is the species most often utilized. A more earthy dish comes via claypot specialties that are just what you'd expect: namely, food cooked and served in clay pots. Shrimp with whole garlic or chicken with ginger sounded like enticing possibilities, but we tried instead the vegetables with vermicelli noodles, which would have been a bland combination of ingredients even if cooked in a solid gold casserole. Next time out we encountered better luck with a claypot of long razor clams piquantly spiced with chili and onions.
Red Lantern's Peking duck was a two-course dandy that started with a quartet of thin moo shu skins into which the waitress, again tableside, added julienned scallion and cucumber, a squirt of hoisin, shrimp crisps, and wisps of the fried duck skin with succulent scraps of meat clinging on. She then rolled and served the crunchily delectable, burritolike pancakes using three spoons, never handling the food at all. The main course comprised shreds of the same bird with bamboo shoots, black mushrooms, bean sprouts, and water chestnuts in an aromatic duck stock flavored with oyster sauce, hoisin, sesame oil, and soy. Steamy jasmine rice was served on the side.
There's not much of a wine selection, but a cold Kirin beer matches up with this cuisine better anyway -- even though it's Japanese. If you want you can order sushi to go with it, as the proprietors of Red Lantern also own Somoto, a restaurant and sushi bar next door, and are more than happy to serve selections from either menu.
We took them up on that offer during our return trip -- for dessert. Our first meal had ended with a rock-hard, freezer-burned dome of red bean ice cream coated in nuts, so we decided to sample one of Somoto's treats, a vanilla-infused wedge of cheesecake coated in thin tempura batter and deep-fried to warm, sweet, soft consistency. It far exceeded our expectations, as did Red Lantern's sparkling, jewel-like cuisine -- so much so that by the second visit I didn't even notice the awning on my way in.