Since its opening in January 2004, Lantern has created a loyal following with its pan-Asian cuisine and farmers' market ingredients. It is one of those restaurants that have managed to achieve that wonderful dining oxymoron: casual fine dining. The space is simple and beautiful, the service is professional and warm, and the food is straightforward but the flavors are complex. While the restaurant bills itself as pan-Asian, almost all of the dishes are loyal representations of a certain cuisine, unmuddied by American or cross-cultural influences. The ingredients may come from North Carolina farms, but the recipes are usually strictly Vietnamese, Chinese or Thai, and never a hodgepodge of all of the above.
For the first Lantern Table dinner however, the menu was Northern Italian. The dinner occurred on a Sunday, when the restaurant is usually closed, and everything came together to make for a great Italian meal. "Obviously, working with the Chapel Hill Creamery, a lot of the cheeses that they are producing have Italian roots," says Andrea Reusing, Lantern's chef and co-owner. She also wanted the opportunity to work with farmers whose produce didn't usually fit in with the Asian theme of the restaurant. "Bill Dow grows beautiful sage, rosemary, radicchio and fennel, and every week he calls me and reads off the list of what he has, and every week I'm like, 'No, Bill, this is still an Asian restaurant.' So it was really great to be able to get a chance to use that stuff."
But there is another motivation at work here as well, which is to highlight farmers in the community by giving them a forum to discuss their methods, products and challenges, and giving them the opportunity to see firsthand people enjoying the things they produce. Earlier this year, Lantern hosted the American Livestock Breed Association's benefit dinner with a menu highlighting locally raised Ossabaw hogs. Reusing was inspired by the conversation that sprang up that night as many diners stayed around for hours after the meal was over, discussing the challenges of our local meat, poultry and produce markets with the farmers themselves. She realized that dinners where producers and consumers come together create a dynamic environment for people to learn about and experience the food they are eating. "There's two things at work here," Reusing says. "For one, I'd like to take our customers who are interested in good food and get them interested in this issue, to maybe transform the gourmet into a food lover who is political and interested in being an activist in this area. And also, it's so great to see the producers, the farmers, actually get to see their product being enjoyed. Most farmers don't really get to go out to eat very often, let alone get to see other people enjoying what they've made."
At the first Lantern Table dinner, the good food, the discussion with producers, and the awareness about eating locally all seemed to come together. Flo Hawley and Portia McKnight of the Chapel Hill Creamery were there to discuss their farmstead cheeses and whey-fed pork, and as the courses came and went, McKnight spoke about the process of raising animals, about the difficulties of becoming certified organic (Chapel Hill Creamery is not certified, but is considering taking that step), and about making cheese. The menu was simple and delicious, with dishes like grilled radicchio with warm autumn-milk mozzarella, polenta and old balsamic, and roast pork with white beans and cracklings. For a dish made with Chapel Hill Creamery's Calavander cheese and a poached egg, Reusing came to each table and shaved fresh white truffle (imported specially for the event) on every plate. "Working with these cheeses at this time of year was just such a great opportunity to do a late fall menu. It's a great time of year for the pigs, for the truffles; it's a great Italian time of year." Reusing said.
Reusing is aiming to have a Lantern Table dinner once every six weeks or so. The next dinner, which will take place on Tuesday, Jan. 10, will feature Fickle Creek Farm and will explore the ingredients and the theme of the chicken and the egg. Because the dinner will be held on a day that the restaurant would usually be open, the menu will be Asian inspired with haute Chinese dishes like drunken chicken and egg drop soup. In February, Reusing is planning a seafood dinner, and next July she will do a dinner with Shady Grove Farm where every single thing on the plate will come from one farm, taking the totally local idea to a whole new level.
"I'm like a 2 year old--I crave limitations," says Reusing. "Doing everything locally is really fun, and trying to do everything from just one farm will be even more of a challenge, but I crave that. You need something to organize you. Working with seasonal and local ingredients is the limitation that makes the most sense."
For more information on The Lantern Table dinner series, go to www.lanternrestaurant.com. The restaurant is now taking reservations for the Jan. 10 dinner with Fickle Creek Farm; call 969-8846. The price is $39 per person.