Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Red Lily Cocktail Bar, Sydney

Red Lantern on Riley is a Vietnamese restaurant in Darlinghurst, serving higher end Vietnamese cuisine than your standard street food.  It was on my list of places to dine on my previous Sydney visit, but I never made it.  On my more recent trip I finally did ... well, almost.

Let me explain.  As I said, Red Lantern is a high end place, with formal service and prices to match.  I tried to get a reservation for my group on Friday for the following night (Saturday), but alas, I didn't plan early enough.  I was unable to get a booking even for just Ojan and I.  I wasn't too upset though, because I knew that attached to the restaurant is Red Lily, their cocktail bar.  Mostly designed for pre- or post-dinner drinks, but it serves pretty much the entire restaurant menu, just in a casual environment, and at half the price.  Honestly, this sounded better to me, particularly as I wasn't entirely sure how large my group would end up.

The venue worked pretty well for us, and was a crowd pleaser.  Overall, the service was fine, the cocktails creative and good enough, and the food quite good.  It was a bit hit or miss, but the kitchen and bar are both clearly talented, and for the prices at the bar, it was worth it.  I don't think I would have felt the same at the higher priced restaurant.  The only real problem we had is that it really was too small for our group, but, that was our own fault.  It would be a much better choice for just 2-3 people, not 5 as we wound up with.

The Space

Entryway from Alley.
Getting to Red Lily is a bit of an adventure.  Red Lantern's entrance is on Riley Street, a main street.  The spaces are connected, the kitchen and bathrooms separate the dining room and cocktail bar, but, the cocktail bar entrance is actually on Crown Lane.  Which ... it turns out, is a totally deserted alley.

Thank goodness Sydney is a safe feeling city.  Every one of my co-workers commented on how skeptical they felt walking down the alley in the first place, and then arriving at the one establishment with a lit up red sign outside.  They trusted me though.

And to get inside?  You step through the funny little door above.

Sketchy perhaps, but totally legit, I promise!
Tiny Tables!
Once inside, the amazement didn't stop.

I knew Red Lily was a small cocktail bar, but I didn't quite realize HOW small.  The interior seating area consisted of a few tiny tables built into the wall (as pictured above) with stools for 2-3 at each, and a small bar.

I had sent out an open invitation for co-workers to join for dinner, and was a bit concerned how it would work in this space.  Since there were 5 of us, we had no choice but the bar, which we were able to commandeer since we arrived on the early side, but even so, we basically ended up standing in a semi-circle all night.  It was fine, but I did feel that we were in the way, especially for the patrons trying to walk behind us as they moved from their pre-dinner drinks in the cocktail bar to the main dining room.

As the night wore on, the little tables quickly filled with couples enjoying cocktails and dinner, and the traffic behind us increased, since the bar staff also needed to get by to bring them their food.  I felt slightly annoying, but, it is a bar after all, and people are used to bumping into each other, right?

The vibe was good, decent music playing at a reasonable volume.  Staff were friendly enough, although busy, and didn't engage with us much throughout the evening.  It took effort to get their attention to order more food or drinks.
Bathroom Door.
Bathrooms are located in the hallway between the main restaurant and the bar, behind these very interesting shutter-style doors.  Single stalls, unisex.  Yes, you could see out into the hallway from inside the stall ...
Very Hip Bathroom.

The individual bathrooms were very hip, with lovely stonework and pipes for faucets.  High end hand soap too.

I didn't get to peek in at the restaurant, but I imagine that it was beautifully furnished.  This matched what I'd expect given their cuisine and pricing.
Menus scattered throughout the cocktail bar included pages and pages of cocktails, plus the main food menu, all housed on clipboards with a burlap sack cover.  Again, hip.


The cocktail selection was impressive, I think 4 pages long.  My guests all commented on how overwhelming the selection was, and most gave up about 2 pages in and just selected something from the first page.

The cocktails were all originals, with fun names and plenty of interesting ingredients (like cherry marmalade, strawberry vanilla jam, jasmine tea, and even chilis!).

Throughout the evening many cocktails were ordered by our group, and folks seemed happy enough with their choices, and in particular, they enjoyed the fun choices.
As always, Ojan ordered a mocktail.  His guidance to the bartender was pretty simple, he just wanted something "not sweet" and "not just fruit juice".

He quite liked the result.  It was hard to describe, but sorta like a minty lemonade ... with lychees and tons of muddled mint in it.  Very minty and refreshing like a mojito, but also incredibly tart like lemonade, and then loaded with fruit that somehow didn't make it too sweet.

He enjoyed it.  I did note that lychees came out of a can, but I guess that isn't a big deal when they are being mixed into a cocktail?  I ate one once Ojan was done with the drink, and it was pretty unremarkable, as you'd expect.
Delta Breeze. $17.
"A refreshing blend of tequila, honey, vanilla and a dash of Burlesque Bitters topped with
ruby red grapefruit juice and shaken with mint."

For my first cocktail, I opted for the Delta Breeze.  It was the first cocktail listed on the menu.  I felt silly stopping at the very first one, when there were so many great selections, but ... it sounded good!

And it was.  The drink was very well balanced.  The bitters and grapefruit contributed the expected bitterness.  The honey and vanilla sweetened it up a bit.  Mint made it refreshing.  The tequila wasn't too strong.

Overall successful.  I wouldn't necessarily order another, but it was good.  $17 price was in line with Sydney standards.
Summertime Sour. $17.
"Strawberry vanilla jam shaken with a healthy dose of Pisco, a little lemon and a sprinkle of cinnamon."

Next I went for something a bit fruiter, as I was moving into the dessert portion of the evening.

This cocktail I did not like.  While my previous one was nicely balanced, this was not.  It was very sweet, presumably from the strawberry jam.  There was a slight sourness from the lemon, but not in a way that complimented the sweetness.  The froth on top was nice, but, I just didn't like this at all, and couldn't manage more than a few sips.  No staff made mention of the fact that I left it basically untouched.


While I was interested in Red Lily for the cocktails, you know I'm really all about the food.  This was my chance to get the Red Lantern dishes I was eying, in a casual environment. 

The food menu is a subset of the Red Lantern menu, but I counted only 3 dishes not on the Red Lily menu from the Red Lantern menu, so unless you have your heart set on one of those, you really aren't missing out.

The menu is classic Vietnamese, with lots of spring rolls and stir fries.  One difference between the restaurant and bar is that the rolls are available individually at Red Lily, and only come in fixed sets in the main restaurant.  But besides that, the menu is basically identical, save one rather important detail: the price.  Prices at Red Lily are literally half that of the restaurant.  Sometimes more.  From what I can see from photos from Red Lantern diners, the portions are the same.

I don't entirely understand the dramatic price differences, other than that they really price the restaurant according to the service level, which, as I noted, was clearly not the same at the bar.  But for the same food quality and kitchen behind it, I'm more than happy to sit at the bar.
Place setting.
Once we ordered food, we were each given little plates and a set of chopsticks, since everything is designed share style.

Dishes arrived as soon as they were ready, and serving utensils were provided.

They clearly know how to make the sharing model work.
Goi Du Du. $12.
"Salad of green papaya, master stock pork belly, tiger prawn, peanut and fried shallots."

We started with a papaya salad, which arrived quickly after ordering.

Like my first cocktail, it exhibited a lot of balance.  The dressing was a bit sweet, a bit salty, a bit fishy.  Very nice, and showed good skill of the kitchen.

The papaya was fresh, the prawns well cooked, and the peanut and fried shallots added additional flavor and crunch.  Nothing crazy here, not a fusion dish, just a papaya salad, but a nicely done one.  The only component I didn't care for was the pork belly, as the pieces I got were a bit too slimy and fatty, not properly rendered.

Ojan's favorite dish of the night, my 2nd pick of the savories.

The $12 price tag was very reasonable (although it is more the double, $25.50, at restaurant, which seems crazy).
Muc Rang Muoi. $12.
"Lightly battered chilli salted squid with fresh lemon and white pepper dipping sauce."

Another appetizer we opted for was the fried squid.  I've really enjoyed squid and calamari in Sydney, like the smoky squid and linguine at Governor's Table, the BBQ whole squid at Ms. G's, the grilled calamari at Bentley,  and even the salt and pepper squid at the Sheraton in the Park's Executive Lounge (of course, the best one is still the salt and pepper squid in the Qantas First Class lounge, seriously, so perfect!), so I was glad others wanted this too.

The squid was battered and decent enough, not rubbery, but it wasn't really seasoned.  The dipping sauce held all the flavor, but, sadly, not in a good way.  This dish reminded me of my second cocktail, all out of balance.  The dipping sauce was just crazy salty and tangy.  This is one of Red Lantern's signature dishes (complimentary on Monday nights!), but it really fell down for me.  Then again, I do prefer my fried fish with a creamy aioli to compliment it in the first place.

My least favorite dish of the night, and I didn't even bother with a second bite.

The $12 price was good for a bar snack, but again, more than double, $24.50, at the restaurant.
Banh Bot Chien. $21.
"Aunty 5’s rice cakes with tiger prawns, caramelised pork, pork floss and shallot oil."

And now for the dish I was most excited about: Banh Bot Chien.  My research made it clear that this was the dish to get.  I'll admit, if I hadn't done my research, and hadn't seen photos, there is no way I would have given this menu item a second glance.  Rice cakes?  Aren't those a dry snack food for those on diets?

Not these rice cakes.  Thank you Aunty 5, whoever you are, for your version of rice cakes!

The rice cakes were little triangles, I believe deep fried.  The rice inside was slightly sticky, and they were super crispy on the outside.  Delightful to eat.

On top was tons of goodness.  The chopped bits of prawn were just like in the papaya salad, well prepared.  The caramelized pork was different than the pork belly from the papaya salad, but, I again didn't care for it.  I don't actually like pork flavor, and this was too porky for me.  But I think that is just me, everyone else scooped it up.  The pork floss however ... that is another story.  That stuff was tasty and totally fascinating.  Yes, it was kinda like pork cotton candy (as gross as that sounds), light and airy.  Ojan said it reminded him of dried squid snacks.  We all thought it was really interesting, and enjoyed it.

For me, the rice cake and the pork floss were both really good components, but the real winner for me was the delicious sauce.  I don't know what it was, but it was really flavorful.

This dish was great, my top choice of the night, and I'd gladly order it again.  We almost ordered a second one on the spot.

Interestingly, the price was much higher than any other appetizer, and, it was priced identical to the restaurant at $21.  I wonder why?  I guess they know it is the dish everyone visits for.
Bo Luc Lac. $19.
"O’Connor pasture fed English breed beef, strip loin wok tossed with black pepper, garlic, oyster sauce and sesame."

Our final savory selection was the Bo Luc Lac, or, shaking beef.  We were asked if we wanted rice on the side, and I said yes, since I knew my guests would want it, even though I'm not a rice eater.  It was just basic steamed rice.

On the side was also papaya salad, not listed on the menu, but basically the same as the appetizer papaya salad, just sans all the tasty toppings.

The beef was fine, quality beef, well cooked, not chewy, not rubbery, not gristly.  Decently seasoned.  But the dish did need a bit more flavor, more sauce or something.  Maybe I'm just used to the version from Slanted Door that comes with a lime dipping sauce?  I wanted some acidity.  Mixed in with the beef was sautéed onions, a bit too soggy.

Others liked this though, and decided to order a second serving.  That serving took forever to come.  Probably close to an hour from the time we ordered.  I asked about it several times, because I was convinced that it was forgotten.

The $19 was quite good for quality beef (but it is double, $38, at restaurant).
Chuoi Chien. $16.
"Banana fritters crumbed in coconut and white rice with palm sugar caramel, tapioca sauce and vanilla bean ice cream."

And finally ... dessert!  You know me, I'm a dessert girl.  Even if a restaurant is known for good savory food, that isn't enough to draw me in.  I need a solid dessert offering too.

Except ... desserts are only on the Red Lantern menu, not the Red Lily menu.  I knew this though, since I did my menu stalking in advance, so I contacted the restaurant before visiting to ask about being served dessert in the bar.  I was told it would be no problem, and, it wasn't, although the bar staff didn't really know details on the dessert menu.  The dessert platter listed on the menu just read a "trio of our finest desserts", and when I inquired as to what those three were, and they weren't sure.  Clearly not very used to serving dessert, and the server who brought the dessert asked how it was afterwards, mentioning that she'd never had any of the desserts before.

Anyway, back to that dessert.  Again, I did my research.  I knew this was the dish to get.

It was pretty awesome, a crowd pleaser, quickly devoured.

The banana fritters were chunks of banana, coated in coconut flakes and white rice, and deep fried.  The coating provided a super crispy exterior and a great crunch.  Inside was soft and just a banana, but piping hot.  The staff clearly delivered it hot and fresh to us, bonus points for that.

I'm all about sauces, even in desserts, and the multiple sauces here delivered.  One was a palm sugar caramel, super sweet and tasty.  The other was a tapioca sauce, basically a very thin tapioca pudding, with small pearl tapioca.  The pearls were soft and nicely cooked, not clumpy.  That sauce was creamy.

And then, a scoop of simple ice cream.  Just ice cream, but I do always love contrasts in my dishes, so the cold ice cream with the hot fritters was appreciated.  I also loved the texture contrast of the crispy fritter with the creamy sauces.

Overall, this was quite good.  It was a bit strange, and I think perhaps I would actually just prefer a bowl of tapioca pudding with some smaller chunks of fried banana throughout, but I enjoyed the flavors and textures, and that quest for a "perfect bite", which I decided consistied of a chunk of banana, the perfect amount of sweet sauce, and a bit of ice cream.

The price was $16, same as the restaurant, since we were ordering off the restaurant menu at this point.
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