COMFORT AND JOY
Hang Dai – hangdaichinese.com
The Ramen Bar – theramenbar.ie
And so, as the year 2020 slouches towards Bethlehem to be put out of its misery, the thoughts of many faithful Dubliners turn, of course, to those traditions and rituals that nourish and succour them through Winter’s dark days, viz Black Friday spending orgies, buying highly flammable tat from salt of the earth types on Henry Street, and the airing of grievances. As I write, the volume of ‘do they know it’s Christmas?’ whingeing is reaching a petulant fever pitch. They do know, but ‘they’ know that some behaviours may have to be curtailed a tad, just the once, because plague. Do you want to be allowed to do turkey and tinsel with those that begat you, or to tie one on down the boozer with braying strangers? Choose one. I don’t believe in holy ghosts and I don’t believe in Santa Claus. I don’t have parents above ground and we are child-free so I don’t really have a dog in the sled race. I do, however, have one tradition that will persist this year and it doesn’t put in or out on anyone else – Chinese food on Christmas Eve.
“As I write, the volume of ‘do they know it’s Christmas?’ whingeing is reaching a petulant fever pitch.”
This has become a firmly entrenched rite for American Jews (stores would be closed and the Chinese have no truck with JC, so their restaurants would be open), so you can accuse me of appropriation if you wish. I am deaf to your kvetching. The conversion (not to actual Judaism) came some years ago as I farted about with partridges, semi-pissed and hungry at about 9pm on the 24th of December and thought, ‘life need not be like this.’ Now we stroll downtown at about four bells, drink some strong cocktails in a bar that knows how to make them before floating home, ordering and popping a cork. I guess it will be two out of three this time around. If I had my choice, on the strength of the ‘dry run’ we just enjoyed, I would be ordering from Hang Dai, although I understand that not everybody loves to work on Christmas Eve, Chinese or no. I have a soft spot for this place. The name is a nod to my favourite TV show of all time (Google it) and the dining room feels as if it was imagined by Philip K. Dick. The food is a factor too. Karl Whelan is a man who knows how to enjoy himself, and a chef who knows how to make others feel the same way. Having proved himself capable of serious (French) technique at the late lamented Luna, his food at Hang Dai has always managed the balancing act of not taking itself too seriously while remaining true to regional flavours and textures. It is authentically itself without being (kung) po-faced. I like to think that Fuschia Dunlop cooks like this for herself when she’s half in the bag and nobody’s looking.
“His food at Hang Dai has always managed the balancing act of not taking itself too seriously while remaining true to regional flavours and textures.”
Prawn toast is rarely anybody’s idea of a good time, but the Hang Dai Sesame Prawn Sourdough Toast is throwing a party and everybody’s invited. Almost rigid at first with sesame seed crunch, it yields to a pliant, generous filling of gently spiced crustacean. This prawn toast rolls into the village, builds a lavish crib and systematically sets about schtupping the wives of other toasts. It is a prawn toast prince among prawn toast paupers. Rich pork dumplings come lacquered in a dark sauce that is saline with just a suggestion of sweetness. Amid all the playfulness, Mapo Tofu, that staple of the Sichuanese kitchen is a must order, it’s a note-perfect rendition, bracingly spicy and profound with the heft of fermented black beans. Welcome to Ma La Land. The heat ratchets up again with a dish of Lamb Neck in Chilli Bean Sauce & Butternut Squash but that heat never serves to obscure a complex flavour profile. We turn to the (complementary) salad of smashed cucumbers for palate-clemency. I can’t think of better Chinese food that you can have delivered to your door.
“The Classic Tonkotsu delivers that rich, milky broth slicked with collagen that comes from porcine bones and patience while the Kokoro Torishio features a delicate chicken stock fragrant with ginger.”
After the joy, it’s time for some comfort and to a Japanese dish that was itself appropriated from China. I was known to eat instant noodles out of a flower pot as a kid (not an abuse scenario), but I came of age with my first bowl of ‘real’ ramen in 2004 in a small, sweaty restaurant on 1st Ave in New York’s East Village. Reader – that restaurant was Momofuku and the small, sweaty, guy labouring over the gigantic stockpot was one David Chang. If you don’t know who that is then you don’t know noodles. He almost single-handedly created the ramen-surge that rose in NYC and crashed in London. Sadly, the splash never really reached our shores and I was forced to undertake overseas noodle pilgrimages to satiate my ravening desire. Seems I could have saved myself a few transatlantic flights if only I had listened to the people making noise about The Ramen Bar on South William Street. Forgive me Clara, I just didn’t want to believe. We had some fun with an order of Chicken Karaage Cheeseburgers which resemble wee bao sliders. ‘Fried chicken, pickles, cheese, what’s not to like?’ deadpans my own harajuku girl, and I’ll second the sentiment. We also enjoyed some Kimchi Mozzarella Arancini with tobanjan mayo. Arancini really are fuego rn. Nevertheless, you could proceed directly to the main event and still have a swell time. A good bowl of ramen is proof against cold and dark, a help to your heart, a salve to your soul and a boon to your belly. These are good bowls of noodles. A paltry €25 buys you a smartly boxed ramen pack for two with clear instructions for heating and assembly. You could just order take-out but where’s the fun in that? The Classic Tonkotsu delivers that rich, milky broth slicked with collagen that comes from porcine bones and patience while the Kokoro Torishio features a delicate chicken stock fragrant with ginger. Either bowl could hold their own in Tokyo. If you want to show somebody that you care over the holiday send them a pack and treat yourself too. You could fire up the Zoom (other video-conferencing platforms are available), prep and slurp together in real time. If that’s not the spirit of the season, then I don’t know what is. Nevertheless, I hope that we are all lucky enough be around people we care for this Christmas and wise enough to keep our distance from people we don’t. May our spirits be high and our infection rates low.
words: Conor Stevens