This is a mini-review for two good reasons: For one, I was feeling well under the weather on a Friday evening when my mother and I decided to pay a visit to the Lantern House restaurant, close to both railway and bus stations in Chelmsford and within a cluster of other eateries of different genres, so was probably not in the best frame of mind to appreciate its virtues; and for another, my phone battery died as soon as we entered, so I couldn’t take any pictures to illustrate my text.
Alas, a second visit is called for when both issues can be rectified, not least because I intend to explore the more obscure corners of the menu when my stomach feels up to the challenge – though this is well short of the authentic obscurity value of, say, the infamous Yang Sing in Manchester. For balance, a visit is also required to the nearby Chinese rival, the Crystal Palace.
Initial impressions were that the Lantern House is a very popular restaurant with good cause, since it evidently knows and services the needs and wants of its clientele precisely. There are cues taken from Cantonese and Peking cuisine, but they do a brisk trade in crispy aromatic duck pancakes, seafood specials and sizzling hotplate dishes, both now a standard feature of British Chinese restaurant culture. In decor it is a fairly standard upmarket proposition, including a number of the self-same lanterns hanging in the window. Nothing especially original, but probably meeting expectations for a comfortable Chinese dinner in warm and friendly surroundings, a buzz created by the vast majority of the 60 covers being occupied on a Friday night before Christmas.
Allied to this is the charm and industry of the well-drilled multicultural staff, of whom there were plenty to go around – always a good sign in a customer-focused restaurant. We were at various times served by a number, one of whom looked like Daniel Craig’s younger, skinnier brother.
On this occasion my mother’s choice was a set dinner, accepted reluctantly since I was far more in the mood for a bowl of soup and noodles. The one we chose was £20.50 a head, which at face value seems on the steep side but proved as it turned out pretty reasonable value for the quality. Let’s face it, many restaurants can churn out mass-produced fried dim sum and stir-fries, but there was throughout evidence of skill and fresh touches.
First course was seafood hors d’oeuvres, something that always amused me – a French term applied to a Chinese starter in a restaurant in England. That notwithstanding, the home-breaded fried squid was a fine example of the art, supplemented by excellent prawn puffs, prawn satays in a more complex and subtle sauce that you would often find accompanying such a dish, and crab claws, which was the one item certainly purchased from a cash and carry but still delightful.
The ubiquitous duck pancake course followed, which is very consistent and tasty everywhere you go nowadays, then the mains: King prawn sweet-sour, pak choi in oyster sauce, special fried rice and, unquestionably the most interesting inclusion, sizzling lamb with ginger and spring onions. You rarely see lamb on a Chinese menu, though mutton is unquestionably featured in the diet in rural areas and in Mongolian hot pots. Arguably a fattier meat like lamb does not work so well in fast-fried dishes with light sauce, but if ever a dish proved that hypothesis wrong, this was it. The lamb was meaty, muscular but tender, fat-free and bore the marginally scorched flavour of being seared. This worked well, and, surprisingly, worked well with a fresh ginger and spring onion sauce.
Mints, fortune cookies, hot towels and more charm sealed the evening. This is far from the most cutting edge of Chinese menus, but as a business it delivers the goods to its clientele. It is food and service tailored to the Essex palate, as demonstrated by the high turnover of satisfied clients. If you’re going to do something, you should aim to do it well, and the Lantern House does that in spades.