TWO YOUNG MEN, seemingly on a very early date, sat near me on a recent visit to Lantern Lounge. Searching the menu, they requested a drink you’d think would be requisite at a Vietnamese-French establishment: tea.
Alas, there was none to be had—only assurances the bartender could make nearly any of the chilled cocktails on the list non-alcoholic. The fellas hightailed it out. I sipped my very good cocktail, the Holy Smokes, made with VSOP cognac, smoked black tea, and green chartreuse and waited for my pork belly steamed buns to arrive.
Right next to Kachka in the former Oso Market space, Lantern isn’t a full-service restaurant, nor is it a bar with a menu in place just to appease the OLCC. It won’t have every item you want, but it’s got what you need. Two months after opening, Lantern fills a niche—it’s good for a drink after a Blazers game, it’s an excellent lounge in which to wait for dinner next door, or (as long as you don’t need tea) it’s an easy Tinder meeting point.
As others have aptly pointed out, Lantern’s vibe comes straight from the Saucebox book, dimly lit by dozens of red paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling and Vietnamese art posters on the concrete walls.
Like many Asian-themed cocktail menus, the drinks stray sweet, but in this case are also refreshing. A Saigon Scoot Scoot ($12) balances cognac, ginger, lemongrass, lemon, and salted honey and is served up with plenty of flavor. The bar menu is also starting to incorporate more bitter and liquor-forward elements—the bartender gave me a preview of one cocktail he’s playing with that combines rye, coffee, amaro, and a dash of fish sauce. It works.
Several drinks go tiki: A rotating happy hour bottled punch ($7) featured a rum blend that went down too easily, but the Fur Collar ($11) was vaguely upsetting—Fernet Branca’s extremely herbal taste doesn’t go well with coconut cream, pineapple, and mint.
Service has been all over the map. Lantern was clearly understaffed during a packed Friday happy hour, but, as can be expected, its waitstaff was chatty and helpful on a Thursday after 8 pm. The food is also highly variable—some of the plates are excellent, while an order of abysmally dry rice flour waffles topped with dry shredded chicken ($11) amounted to what my dining partner called her worst restaurant meal in memory. Often, I’ll order a bad dish on another visit to see if the kitchen was having an off night—but after sharing hers, I couldn’t subject myself, or anyone else, to the cottonmouth it induced. (Something else to avoid: the $3 side of sticky rice, which, while sticky as advertised, arrives in a plastic bag that contains perhaps three bites of the stuff.)
That being said, the Bo Kho ($14) did warrant a second order, with braised goat osso bucco in a red curry stew augmented with rainbow carrots and parsnips over rice. It’s got a warm kick of spice, and the use of gamey goat meat keeps it from being basic. Sautéed bok choy ($8) is given a great umami ride with marinated shiitakes and a tamarind sauce, topped with a runny-in-the-middle sous vide egg.
A skewer of four la lot leaves stuffed with steak and served with a fermented dipping sauce ($6) is far more interesting and delicious than the white-washed pork and shrimp meatballs ($8). The bahn mi ($7 happy hour/$8 regular) doesn’t shy away from liver pate or pork terrine, and is also more substantial than the $3.50 versions, but does need more heat.
Lantern’s just getting going—with tweaks along the way, it appears poised to shine bright in the future.