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April 2017

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Golden Lantern – Have Wok, Need Flavor

Did you ever see “Eat Drink Man Woman”?

The story revolves around a gifted, skilled chef who has lost his sense of taste. (It's the same exact plot as “Tortilla Soup,” where the characters are Mexican-American instead of Chinese.)

Or how about the Food Network show, “Restaurant: Impossible” in which beefy Robert Irvine, on a mission to save failing restaurants, berates chefs who don't use any seasonings? “I don't use salt in case we have a customer who can't have salt,” says one clueless chef, to which Irvine snorts, “You don't have any customers.”

Which brings us to Golden Lantern. Occupying a prime spot of real estate on Churn Creek at Four Corners near Hartnell since 2007, this restaurant ought to be packing them in. It's on a busy corner with plenty of parking and lots of seating. The interior is well-lighted, clean, and attractive; service is unfailingly friendly and helpful; the generous servings are bargain-priced. But on each of three visits during peak lunch dining hours, M. de Joie observed that no more than five tables were occupied. So why isn't Golden Lantern busy?

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Seafood tofu soup (medium $62.5, large $7.50) was very long on tofu and very short of seafood. There was what seemed like an entire cake of diced firm tofu in a bowl of hot but flavorless broth, bobbing along with diced carrots and some peas. After a few drops of soy sauce yielded only minor improvement, M. de Joie requested some chili paste: a driblet or two finally added some much-needed savor. As for the seafood, about 10 cocktail shrimp had sunk to the bottom of the bowl, where they nestled among an infinitesimally-small dice of an unknown sea creature.

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Amico del Signore ordered almond chicken ($5.95 lunch special with steamed or fried rice and chow mein or sweet and sour pork). It looked good, it smelled good, and the zucchini and chicken were perfectly cut and cooked. But there was no flavor – as the dish cooled it seemed to become blander. Garlic and ginger are usually stir-fried together as a preliminary seasoning for most Cantonese dishes, but there was no evidence of either. The only seasonings were some chicken broth and perhaps a teeny amount of soy sauce. Fried rice was freshly prepared but likewise bland. Pork cubes had a lovely crisp coating but the sweet and sour sauce was neither. "The more you eat it," he sighed, "the less you like it."

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Beef with broccoli ($5.95 lunch special) suffered the same fate as the almond chicken: great care had been taken in the prep and actual cooking, but there was no discernable flavor other than a very small amount of soy sauce. And here the two dishes collided and crawled all over each other - not the most appetizing presentation. Chow mein noodles were very overcooked and the entire dish was unfortunately quite oily.

Note: M. de Joie took the leftovers home and stir-fried them together the next with a shot of Sriracha, and that flavoring alone made them spectacular. Too bad they couldn't have been so tasty when first served.

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In contrast, someone took pride in the hot and sour soup. This was a winner, with an almost creamy texture and good balance of neither too hot or too sour. Amico del Signore had never tasted hot and sour soup before, but he declared this a winner. Though there could have been a little more heat for M. de Joie's taste, it was still the best dish of the day.

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Chinese chicken salad ($5.95 as an appetizer) was sloppily thrown together. Normally shredded chicken breast is used in this salad, both for aesthetics and for its ability to absorb flavorful dressings, but here some random pieces of lukewarm dark meat was scattered around the platter with large leaves of iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, peanuts, and a few none-too-crispy rice noodles. Plain rice vinegar was the only dressing. This could have been so much better with a careful presentation and a creative dressing - perhaps with sesame oil, ginger, sugar, and garlic to cut the tartness of the vinegar. As it was, the vinegar puddled on the bottom of the plate and didn't provide a cohesive element to bring the dish together.

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When M. de Joie ordered beef pho ($5.50 medium, $6.50 large), the waitress asked her if she wanted the bean sprouts and Sriracha, which seemed an odd question. The accompaniments are as much a part of that warming bowl of soup as are the rice noodles. It's like asking if you want ketchup with your fries.

Right away M. de Joie noticed the thinly-sliced beef: it looked unusually white. Plucking out one slice and tasting it alone, it proved to be not beef but pork. A broth that smelled enticingly of star anise turned out to be miserably weak and thin – watery chicken and pork with little beef taste. Usually a mouthful of the rice noodles comes dripping with beefy goodness, but here they only tasted of unseasoned rice: there was no flavor to absorb. Adding a minced slice of Jalapeno, some hoisin, Sriracha, and soy helped somewhat, but still: this was a huge disappointment.

When M. de Joie had eaten about half of the pho, the waitress came by and asked if she was done with the condiment tray. Upon receiving an affimative answer, the waitress took the tray to another table – the only other occupied table. Do they only have one set of Thai condiments?

Obviously the owners of Golden Lantern are invested in this restaurant. The place is spotless, service is good, and the prices are rock-bottom. It should be successful. But there are some decided issues with the food. The chef obviously has cutting and cooking technique down pat, but isn't using the flavor card to his advantage - in fact, the flavor card seems to have been put back in the pack. And taking the time and care to present dishes appetizingly costs nothing, but seems to be getting short shrift.

Some corners are being cut – pork instead of beef, a real dearth of seafood in a seafood soup, no one in the kitchen taking time to turn out broths and sauces with exciting flavors. This may save money in the short term, but as a long term practice is ultimately destructive. Femme de Joie hopes the chef & owners of Golden Lantern will honestly evaluate the dishes coming out of the kitchen. If prices are too low to afford filling a beef dish with beef or a seafood dish with seafood, then possibly the dish needs to come off the menu, or the prices raised. Both of those are painful choices, but the restaurant should be full during the lunch hour and it's not - and that seems more painful.

Golden Lantern, 2990 Churn Creek Road, Redding, CA 96002. 530-222-1166, fax 530-222-0918. Open Tuesday through Thursday, 11:00 AM - 9:30 PM, Friday and Saturday 11:00 AM - 10:00 PM, Sunday 12:00 PM - 9:30 PM. Closed Monday. Cards, cash, no checks. Beer and wine. Vegetarian and vegan options. On-site parking. Website at http://goldenlanterncalifornia.com/

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