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By Bernie Whitmore
There was a time when my idea of Chinese cuisine was candy-apple-red spare ribs and sweet ’n’ sour shrimp. Then I moved to Worcester and experienced an awakening in a real Chinese restaurant. The hot and spicy flavors, garlicky-pepper sauces and crunchy vegetables in Sichuan and Hunan cuisines relegated “Polynesian” to the scrap heap. Moreover, this good Chinese food didn’t give me that bad MSG wire-pulled-through-the-brain sensation.
Because of that culinary epiphany, I hold Worcester area Chinese restaurants in high regard. So when The Red Lantern opened on Shrewsbury Street’s “Restaurant Row,” I looked forward to paying them a proper visit.
I’d visited the Red Lantern once before, but that was strictly a (very tasty) buffet experience, and in my opinion buffets are not a reliable gauge of quality (Maybe it’s the sight of all those sugary dough things. Or maybe it’s due to my ambivalence about puddings and those soft-serve ice cream machines that seem de rigueur at these affairs.).
So on this proper dinner visit, my dining companion and I passed by the buffet with no more than a glance and headed straight for the menu ~ all three hundred items of it. While contemplating the vast possibilities, we started with frosty bottles of Tsingtao beer; exceptionally crisp and refreshing.
Most of the soups are “For Two;” we chose Hot and Sour. Our waitress presented it in a large bowl and ladled it into cups for us. The rich dark broth was peppery-hot and tangy with a splash of vinegar. I didn’t come across and of the tiger lily buds that are traditional to this soup, but there were plenty of tofu strips, mushroom slices and green onion chunks.
Sushi at a Chinese Restaurant? Based upon my expansive knowledge of Asian history, acquired strictly via movies, I would have thought it unlikely. But the Red Lantern has a Sushi Bar with at least fifty offerings that all sound very tasty. My guest ordered California Rolls and Yellowtail Tuna Sushi. I’m no expert in this area, but I found the tuna absolutely fresh and its flavor pleasantly mild.
Rather than study the extensive menu and postpone actually experiencing the food, we limited ourselves to a couple of categories ~ one of the cuisine’s classic dishes and a Red Lantern “Chef’s Specialty.” The classic was Kung Pao Shrimp ($12), a fiery-hot blend of chili peppers, peanuts, vegetables and large juicy shrimp coated in a sauce of hoisin and soy. It’s a colorful, flavorful dish with large thin carrot slices, diamonds of bell peppers and green onions studded with handfuls of pale peanuts. Careful avoidance of the tiny chili peppers keeps the fire quite tolerable.
The shrimp was soon joined on my plate by spoonfuls of House Special Duck ($17). This was duck made easy. Slices of lean duck meat were served in a mild sauce with crunchy peapods, green onions, celery and baby corn. We were amazed at the amount of tender duck in this dish. Its rich, smooth flavors contrasted and tamed the fiery Kung Pao as both nestled against a mound of steamed rice. Could this be a Yin and Yang experience?
Setting my armchair Chinese metaphysics and chopsticks aside, I took some time to check out the dining room. Our table was highly varnished burled wood ~ perhaps real. The wall behind the buffet was hung with wooden shadow boxes that merited much closer scrutiny. At the other end of the cultural spectrum was the obligatory nod to the “Hello Kitty” tradition gracing the entry area. Above us was a shrine complete with electric incense and candles. Paper lanterns were hung far above the tables from the drop ceiling.
Our waitress was quite attentive and kept our water glasses full throughout the evening. For food quality, preparation and service, I’d give the Red Lantern high grades. Now if they’d just get one of those soft-serve machines…