Checking into sushi, a Seattle roll ($14) featured such un-Asian ingredients as "broiled" (more like "torched") sea scallops, celery, and cream cheese. It also had some seriously hot mayonnaise, so it's not for everyone. It is delicious, if messy, and made a light dinner for one. Chow fun noodles ($16) are supposed to come with "white-pepper pork, yellow chives, water chestnuts, and pea shoots." Two out of four would do if the noodles had real wok-seared flavor, but with pork without much bite, chestnuts, and no evident snap-pea tendrils or blanched garlic chives, it was just a plate of Chinese-style food.
At the other price extreme, "Broken Lobster" ($39) was a perfectly sound version of lobster stir-fried with ginger and scallion, prettily piled up, and accompanied by real jasmine rice and "market vegetables" — in this case, beans, carrots, and grilled asparagus. The bonus garnish of Japanese bonito flakes is a real possibility for future study. "American wagyu" ribeye steak ($38) from North Dakota, served medium as ordered, was an excellent entrecote. The designation is a contradiction in terms, since "wagyu" means Japanese cattle. The American Wagyu Association is more interested in genetics (and Japanese cattle breeds are heavily influenced by imported stock) than in feed or the legendary massage.
With entrées you may well want side vegetables, and our grilled asparagus ($6) was correctly concentrated by dry heat. Lobster whipped potatoes ($12) were quite successful in diffusing some lobster flavor through rich mashed potatoes. Wok bok choy and garlic ($5) was quite a lot of baby bok choy with garlic but also a lot of unmentioned red pepper flakes. Take heed.
The bar program is even more complicated than the menu, but you may be happiest with beer or wine. Testing the tiki-drink category, I had a watery mai tai ($10). Of their own concoctions, a "Geisha" ($12) combined Stoli wild cherry, passion fruit, and "bubbly" into a perfect imitation of cherry cough syrup. Bubble tea wasn't bad, but some of the black tapioca marbles were hard as, well, marbles. However, a glass of 2009 Charles Smith "Velvet Devil" merlot ($11) was a real find, with structure to match the fruit.
One natural advantage of fake Chinese restaurants is dessert, and Red Lantern does not fail here. Lantern cake ($8) is sort of a cross between chocolate cake and whoopie pie, except that the cream layer has a wonderful hint of wasabi heat, and you hardly ever have a whoopie pie with walnut (or maybe Marcona almond) ice cream. Pineapple bread pudding ($10) is so good you could steal the recipe, and a "tonka bean [crème] anglais" amounts to a highly complementary vanilla-flavored thinned custard sauce. The desserts were comped, too, so they may have cut larger portions for suspected reviewers, but these things are made ahead, so they didn't doctor the flavors.
Service, despite the huge room and a lapse with our confusing group at ordering time, is well-organized and — unless you use the notebook trick — not too hovering. This odd little street between Back Bay and South End has killed a lot of interesting restaurants over the years, but Red Lantern has so much of interest to so many kinds of diners that the only substantial risk is the price points.
Red Lantern, located at 39 Stanhope Street in Boston, is open daily from 5 pm - 1:30 am. Call 617.262.3900
Robert Nadeau can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.