It’s been about three months since I’ve made a post. You know it. I know it. No, I’m not dead. No I haven’t stopped writing. I just stopped caring for a minute or two. Sue me. But let us continue as if nothing bad has ever happened between us please? Great. And let us never speak of this again.
LANTERN *****/*****423 West Franklin Street
Chapel Hill, NC 27516 Author’s note: I’m aware this isn’t part of my standard L.A. restaurant review formula. Yes this review is for a North Carolina restaurant. North Carolina is my home state. Deal with it you louts (I’m bringing back “lout”)
Something you may not know about me: I hate flying. I hate it. I hate the process of getting to the airport. I dislike the actual airport. I dislike all the people. I find the place to be a center of disease. The meeting place for germs and viruses from other states and countries. I dislike security (what will they find? Did one of my friends put a bunch of molly in my duffel as some sick joke?). And I dislike waiting to board my flight, looking out on the plane as it’s being refueled and wondering…. is this the one that goes down? If a mechanic will not spot that missing bolt in the plane’s undercarriage.This sounds terribly dramatic but unfortunately that’s one of MANY morbid thoughts that zip in and out of my brain. During boarding, I even wonder if the jet bridge will suddenly collapse. Can’t help it.
Anyway, it was end of May when I was on my last flight. I was heading home to Raleigh, North Carolina. To see family and attend the wedding of one of my best friends. I’m officially of an age where my nearest and dearest are getting married off to wonderful gents, most of whom I barely know.
Living in California away from all the people you left behind makes that possible. I also had to read from the Good Book. Lauren, the bride to be, insisted this be the case. Despite my objections of being a wonderful sinner with a lack of enthusiasm for public speaking.
Another fun reason to be home was that another friend Julianna (Ghoulianna / Droolianna), former ice queen, had her heart melted by a prince charming recently. Therefore she had lost a bet which we had made months prior: “whoever gets a boyfriend first has to pay the other $50.” Certain she would win this bet (the loser being the one to get a boyfriend/pay up) she simply laughed it off. Cut to more than several months later and she’s all booed up and shit. So I told Julianna, “you can just buy me dinner.” So the night before Lauren’s wedding we traversed to our college stomping grounds to dine at Lantern in Chapel Hill. Also known as “Chapel Thrill” in some cases.
The restaurant although located in a small college town has several awards and distinctions on its proverbial mantel including Gourmet Magazine naming it one of the 50 Best Restaurants in America. Not to mention the chef, Andrea Reusing, has been raved about — from the New York Times, to Food and Wine, the Wall Street Journal, and has a James Beard for best chef in the Southeast.
Lantern existed ever since I had come and gone from my alma mater but never once did I venture into the restaurant for a meal. My low brow taste (mostly late night Jimmy John’s orders and shitty fried tofu from a place called Jade Palace) and a rather thin wallet precluded me from such extravagance. Although I did happen in on their bar (accessible via an alleyway) many times to sip on more than a few of their innovative cocktails.
Luckily for us our mutual friend Katie O. (Gemini, raccoon, tastemaker, and horror enthusiast) had been working there until just recently, and since Katie was joining us for dinner too (joy!) there were hints of preferential treatment. And if you know me: my preferred preference is preferential treatment.
The bar which glows a warm blood red was jam packed at almost 9pm on a Friday. Julianna and I greeted Katie who sat relaxed at the bar like she owned the place. Handing us drink menus, we picked our poisons. I opted for a “Windy Village” a concoction I hadn’t indulged since my college years: Meyer lemon + cucumber gin + fresh lemon juice. Served up, it’s a beautifully transparent but milky green cocktail that’s tart, not too sweet, goes down smooth, AND refreshing. Not to mention just one will get you shnooked.
Droolianna on the other hand opted for Lantern’s variation of a martini, the “Late Blossom”. This pale pink drink has Luksusowa vodka, Lillet Blanc (a french apertif wine), lychee juice and orange flower water shaken together for a perfect mix. Not to mention the succulent lychee fruit as a garnish.
A few gulps into our drinks, a table nearby was cleaned up and waiting. Sitting down, we looked over the menu. Katie helped guide us through the pan-asian fusion fare with confidence — stating she’d eaten the entire menu twice over since working there. And no, she’s not obese. She’s thin and petite.
Ordering up a couple appetizers, our entrees, and then going for a bottle of red, we eased into catching up and talk of the past + future. As long-time friends do. Katie was soon to be moving over my way to L.A. and Julianna was thinking of following suit. Our first courses came out. A soft shell crab drizzled with a chile-lime sauce, a bundle of grilled asparagus bowed by a fried egg, and a trio of crab cakes (the last two dishes were compliments of the kitchen). Then the incredibly diverse charcuterie board: pork terrine (I love a good forced meat), crispy rillettes (think pate poached in fat then shredded and crispified in this instance), thin slices of spicy air-dried beef, crusty bread, and pickled radishes. OH and pork rinds (not that there wasn’t enough pork).
If all that wasn’t heavy and filling enough (which it was) our main dishes came out soon thereafter. Katie had opted for an ENTIRE FRIED FISH. Not shitting you. When the waiter put the plate down, the pescado was staring at me through a perfectly crispy membrane and nearby: the jasmine rice and carrot salad it came with.
Julianna and I both being water signs opted for the same dish. THE BEEFY ONE: A Red Poll ribeye steak (the Red Poll cow is the oldest cow breed in the U.S. and one of its finest). The meat was seared Japanese Steakhouse style — think Benihana, but also fuck off Benihana as you don’t come miles near this (Although, I’ll see you in a couple weeks probably). The side dishes were just as murderous: flash-fried spinach, a ramekin of yummy ponzu sauce, green tea sushi rice, grilled onions, and a sprinkling of sea salt.
After one bite of the steak that dissolved in my mouth I knew we were in for something special. The crispy spinach was another winner. It crunched with every first bite then quickly melted savory and decadent down into my stomach. Nothing was saved on my plate. Everything consumed. Which is a rarity. I could not be stopped. The food just kept going in.
So, in a haze of gin, wine, and the perpetual conveyor belt of food, almost the ENTIRE dessert menu was brought out for us to dig into. A jiggly delicious panna cotta with pistachios and strawberries, a butter cake with PEPPERCORN ICE CREAM (????), and something else I don’t remember. I think some mint ice cream sundae + cookie.
If you don’t believe that dreams come true then I don’t know what to tell you. After this meal I BELIEVE there is a heaven and that place is at Lantern. And if you think this is over (I thought it was) — it wasn’t. Katie insisted on an after dinner drink. Cynar. A liqueur made of artichokes that I had yet to ever try. It’s dark brown in color and very sweet. But it’s a sipper. Not to mention Cynar is one of the world’s greatest aphrodisiacs. Something to keep in mind for date night.
The rest of the evening was a whirlwind. A stop over at an old haunt The Nightlight for a noise convention called Savage Weekend. There I slurred through conversation with old friends, got free drinks at the bar (heyooo it’s good to be back), pointed at drunk people sitting down and declaring them “way fucked up”, then passing out later at Katie’s.
The next morning. The day of the wedding. I was hungover. Oh god. Not to mention oh GOD: I had to READ out loud in front of more than a hundred people in three hours. Julianna raced me home (not before stopping at bojangles for some fried chicken) and I quickly got my act together for Lauren’s big day. My mother was my date to the ceremony and we were late. But given the bride’s family is Italian nothing was expected to go on time.
Needless to say the reading went off without a hitch. My voice echoed across each wall of the cathedral, the guests nodded approval at my words chosen by Lauren. And I wasn’t struck down by well placed lightning bolt.
As the ceremony ended, after the new couple said their eternal vows, we moved on to the reception (which Julianna joined me for). The mood looped from happy to bittersweet more times than I could count. Then night enveloped the day and when the dancing winded down, we took part in (ironically) a lantern lift-off. These paper lanterns would be lit from the bottom, and as the hot air expanded the cocoons, we’d let them go and they’d rise up. Into the dark sky, each one a positive thought for the new Mr. & Mrs.
I said my blessings for the newlyweds under my breath and watched the paper balloon lazily levitate up and up, joining the other words and well-wishes. After reaching a certain height, I couldn’t tell the lanterns from the stars in the sky.
Cross-country moves. Quitting jobs. Getting new jobs. Getting new boyfriends or girlfriends. Fiances. Husbands. Wives. Getting older. Changes. Things were moving fast for the people in my life. That’s why it’s most important to be present sometimes. Like dinner with Katie and Julianna the night before. We may or may not remember the food as the years wear on but we certainly will not forget each other’s friendships — the love and support which we’ll have wherever life might take us.