Where does Michael Schiffer, founder of Maximillians in Cary, champion of all things from the Orient bold and spicy, subject of last month's Food Chain, go when he wants to be wowed? His answer is quick and decisive: Lantern, to immerse himself in the menu of chef Andrea Reusing. To describe Reusing's food, Schiffer uses words like "sensory overload" and "edgy." To describe Reusing herself, "She's really a delight. In a business where there's a lot of megalomaniacs, Andrea is truly one of the class acts of the area—and ballsy—with a wonderful palate."
Reusing grew up in New Jersey, went to NYU for Cinema Studies and then, as most do, remained in the city. A long period of culinary self-study began, first in the kitchens of the East Village neighborhood restaurants where she earned money for school, then in the dining rooms of three- and four-star favorites when she worked as a writer for a political consultant: "I had an expense account, so I was lucky to be able to eat a lot." Though she didn't move down to the Triangle with the intent of taking it by storm ("I was thinking about my boyfriend, mainly"), she soon joined Raleigh's Enoteca Vin as its first chef. While at Vin she conceived of Lantern, and in January 2002 Lantern as we know it was born.
The restaurant is on West Franklin Street in a one-story brick storefront marked on the side with graffiti and over the door only by a symbolic lantern (a nod to New York's "in the know" venues?). Its vision has been unchanged these five years: Taking "simple, strong, interesting flavors and marrying that to local ingredients has always been our thing," Reusing says. She creates Asian dishes that are "really traditional" but uses what's locally available "to substitute for ingredients that are harder to find." Slow-Food lovers unite: At Lantern, you can have your kimchee and eat it, too.
The years she spent exploring Chinatown are evident on Reusing's menu (dishes like her "Drunken Chicken" can be found on any number of Mott Street tables), but how did she get the idea to weave in specifically Asian food with emphasis on local farms? Reusing credits three restaurants in particular that have had great success with fresh Asian menus. In San Francisco, there's the Slanted Door; in Seattle, Monsoon; and in New York, Momofuku. They "use a lot of local, interesting ingredients in nontraditional ways but with traditional flavors from Asian cooking."
Unlike Momofuku, whose menu flatly states, "We do not serve vegetarian friendly items," Lantern offers a relatively large number of possibilities for vegetarians, who may choose to piece together a meal out of the $6-$9 appetizers like mushroom and cabbage dumplings, vegetable spring rolls, warm curried beets, seasonal greens, and, this month, a special of pan-roasted local asparagus with butter and soy topped by a poached Fickle Creek Farm egg. Vegetarians seeking an entrée can be happily protein-boosted by the spicy lemongrass tofu at $17.
To cultivate a wine-loving crowd, together with beverage director Jay Murrie (who is the wine buyer at Southern Season), Reusing also designs seasonal three-course tasting menus, available every night. The menu evolves, as does the price, which ranges from $50 to $75 per person according to ingredients used and wines paired. Every few months, Lantern also sponsors the "Lantern Table" dinner series focusing on local farms and food producers. (The next one, in July with Castle Rock Gardens, will be a Japanese-style Kaiseki dinner with as many as 12 small courses.)
Between Slow Food events, Lantern Tables, seasonal tasting menus, and the quotidian tasks of running a restaurant, does Reusing have any hobbies outside the kitchen? Mountain biking? Waterskiing? A book club, perhaps? She pauses. "I don't know how to put this politely. My main reading is political blogs about the demise of our nation." (I assure her she's unlikely to alienate many readers of the Independent, and in fact her restaurant may be all the more beloved for it.)
I recently had the opportunity to consume about a third of Lantern's menu in one sitting. After the so satisfying asparagus with Fickle Creek Farm poached egg (a Japanese tradition) came salt and pepper shrimp with fried jalapeños and coriander. Reusing characterizes it as "a classic Chinatown dish, more than anything else on our menu." I found it a deeply rewarding experience in texture, taste, and skill: Eat them with the shells on, like a soft-shell crab, so you can benefit from the salt-crusted exterior, but first summon all your Jedi power to balance a small garnish of crispy jalapeño and coriander on each shrimp before lifting it with your chopstick.
After a refreshing palate-cleansing Red Geisha cocktail (muddled fresh organic strawberries with lime, ginger and vodka) came lightly fried pot stickers with sesame soy dip and greens in lime oil that elevated the very concept of this too-often-greasy standard take-out. The heaviest part of the evening was, not surprisingly, the pork belly, and it was the only one that created contention at the table. In a Vietnamese style with Chinese influence, the Chapel Hill Creamery pork belly was "lacqué" with a thick caramel sauce covering the luscious layer of fat. The taste was beautifully balanced between sweet and savory, but it was difficult to get past the texture, as sticky as taffy and as likely to dislodge a crown. Perhaps the accompanying strands of pickled daikon were placed there for a quick floss?
The entrées were exceptional. Though Lantern kindly provides Western utensils, the coconut-braised Niman Ranch pork shank was so tender it was easily deboned with chopsticks. A fragrant mound of jasmine rice sat proximate to the pork in a shallow bath of gentle coconut curry. (The pork shank is a favorite of Michael Schiffer of Maximillians, who not surprisingly recommends ordering it "extra spicy.")
The "Shaking Beef" entrée, which refers to a Vietnamese method (inspired by French sautéing) of throwing the raw beef in the pan just long enough to shake it, placed slices of barely seared, perfectly spiced Wagyu beef on a bed of watercress with caramelized red onions. This special may not be on the menu long, but if you have a chance to order it, it's worth every penny of the $29.
Monica Segovia-Welsh's panna cotta is a must, too. Served this evening as a crème fraiche panna cotta with strawberries (local and organic, of course), it's a standard on the menu and can be seen in such mouthwatering incarnations as "pistachio panna cotta with blood orange caramel" or "vanilla bean panna cotta with espresso caramel."
Chef Reusing may be a bit disingenuous when she says, "At home I cook really simple things." She grills often, usually chicken from the farmers' market, and cooks vegetables for her vegetarian husband. But Reusing's definition of "simple things" may be different than we laypeople's. Most recently, she taught her 4-year-old daughter how to make Tuscan gnudi, ricotta-based dumplings similar to gnocchi. It is fairly certain that we will not find macaroni and green Jell-O in this mother's cupboard.
The question begs to be asked: Does this Slow-Food disciple ever eat, dare we say, fast food? She eats often at neighboring SandwHich, but that's as far as she goes. "I don't like to sound like the person who says I'd never eat fast food, but I don't, really! I don't want to make it up à la George Bush the First."
What she does eat when she finds the time to eat out is something of a surprise. It's from an entirely different culinary tradition than Lantern's, one far starchier than Asian food. Want a hint? Do they have good beer there? You Bet.
Check back in with us next month to discover Reusing's pick for best meal in the Triangle.