The Chinese saying “yi cai yi ge, bai cai bai wei” roughly translates to “each dish has its own style, a hundred dishes have a hundred different flavours” and it supports the idea of boundless variety in this country’s immensely rich culinary history.
Sichuan food is just one of eight regional cuisines in China, famous for its love of garlic, its celebrated Sichuan peppercorn and its adoption of South American chilli peppers brought in through trade in the 16th century. Sichuan peppercorns and dried chillis are the basis of this regional food but numbing heat is only the beginning of what Sichuan food has to offer.
My key point of reference for Sichuan food is from M&L Chinese Restaurant, run by Angie Wang and her husband Graeme Phelan. The service is charmingly curt, which only works because the food is legit delish, particularly their dumplings and their renowned fried green beans.
A food writing colleague of mine, Leslie Williams, gave me a tip off that Old Town on Capel Street was another authentic Sichuan to seek out. He had visited with his friend the Chinese-American food writer Mei Chin. Alongside Donegal chef Kwanghi Chan, Chin is currently working on a fascinating research project on Chinese-Irish food culture called Sláint-Chi (slaintchi.com).
When I visit Old Town, I don’t have the secret weapon of a dinner date versed in the Chinese language and food culture, but I get by pretty well. I suspect our waiter has been delegated to us because of his abilities with the English language. He’s very sweet and politely stops us from over-ordering when we get a bit carried away. The portions are huge here at Old Town, as well. There’s still enough of a language barrier to prevent us from being able to probe for any possible off-menu options (are secret off-menu options just an urban myth?), so we head for the back of the menu to investigate the Chef’s Recommendations and restaurant specialities.
On the stereo throughout our visit is intense Chinese pop music, with a temporary and short-lived diversion to U2’s One Love before returning to pop that the waiters sing along to. When we quiz the waiters at the end of the night as to what they’d been playing, they show us their Xiami music app, a sort of Spotify for C-Pop packed full of a whole other world of music.
The dry fried chicken dish (€10.80) is a Sichuan staple, pairing crispy chunks of chicken with an intimidating amount of the famous Sichuan chilli peppers. These chillis are that magic type of chilli that certainly pack heat but not enough to kill you. Thanks to a photograph on the menu, we realise the fried lentils with pork mince (€9.80) is a version of M&L’s famous fried green beans, another Sichuan classic. At Old Town, the addition of crispy fried pork adds another dimension to this delicious dish. Steamed pot-sticking dumplings (€8.80) are above average, their pillowy pastry enveloping a tasty pork filling. Meanwhile, a plate of moist pork belly slices (€10.80) is doused in a chilli oil.
Less successful is an order of fried corn with pine nuts (€9.80) is a gratuitously large plate of warm corn kernels with a few cubes of raw red pepper and some barely toasted pine nuts mixed through. It’s unremarkable and it brings the tone of the table down. I was expecting something with a touch more finesse and flavour, rather than a cluster of corn kernels unceremoniously piled on a plate.
What would bring me back to Old Town is the wonton Sichuan soup (€5.80). It’s listed on the starters menu but it ends up being the star of the show. Silky won ton dumplings swim in a spicy broth, cooled with a squeeze of citrus and steamed greens. Hot pots are an ancient staple all around China from the cold north to the seafood rich south, but one of the most famous hot pots is the spicy broth that hails from the southwestern city called Chongqing. Is this delicious spicy broth at Old Town the famous Chongqing broth that I’ve been reading about?
Overall, the food experience in terms of depth of flavour and delicacy is superior at M&L but the Old Town wonton soup has all the ingredients for a recurring food craving. It suggests that the real secrets of Old Town may lie within its Hot Pot menu. It would be well worth an exploratory visit to find out. Including a Tsingtao beer (€4) and a Green Ice Tea (€2.50), our bill comes to a total of €62.30.
Words: Aoife McElwain
Images: Killian Broderick
123 Capel Street