Words: Aoife McElwain / Photo: Mark Duggan
My idea of the perfect New Year’s Eve is getting a bunch of friends together for a big meal. We could rent out a house in the country and go for the last winter hike of the year before sitting down to a heart-warmingly fantastic meal cooked by everybody. New Year’s Eve being what it is, I’ve never quite brought this idea to fruition – but I’m working on it.
I should really take a leaf out of the Chinese tradition of the last millennium. Continuing on a centuries old tradition, reunion dinners will take place on the January 31st all over the world to celebrate the beginning of the Spring Festival otherwise known as Chinese New Year.
M&L Szechuan Chinese Restaurant has been tucked away on the subdued Cathedral Street just off O’Connell Street since 2008. Wife and husband team Angie Wang and Graeme Phelan took it over in 2012, with Angie using her experience of working in restaurants in China to keep the experience authentically Chinese. Angie tells me that new customers often remark on the large amount of Chinese customers in the restaurant. “Then they point at the dishes on the table and ask ‘What’s that?’ It’s a question we always welcome.”
We walk in to hear Mandarin being spoken behind the bar and at the tables. We give side glances (and some full on envious stares) to the food on neighbouring tables while exciting smells seem to envelope us as we sit under little red lanterns hanging overhead .
The food of the Szechuan province is famous for its heat. “Szechuan food is about subtle blends of hard chillies, soft chillies, peppercorns,” Angie explains, “and so many other ingredients woven together in tapestries of flavour that have been perfected over hundred of years.” M&L’s head chef and assistant chef are both from the Szechuan province and work on bringing that heat and flavour to Dublin. “When Chinese chefs first came to the West, for whatever reason they found that Westernised versions of proper Chinese dishes were preferred. However, restaurants like us have set about changing that and introducing those looking for the real taste of China – what the Chinese actually eat themselves.”
M&L have a reputation for their steamed pork dumplings (€5.80) and ours come in a wooden box and are sticky yet light, fat and flavoursome – definitely the best dumplings I’ve had in Ireland. We played it safe and ordered Meat Sung (€8.80), dishing out lightly spiced pork into lettuce leaves to roll up and crunch. We regretted not trying something a little less familiar than the Meat Sung as our second starter but the menu is long at M&L which made us panic slightly and reach for the familiar. Next time we’ll be asking for recommendations.
The Four Seasons Green Beans (€10) are another signature dish at M&L. It says a lot about a kitchen that it can make green beans something people come back for. These are coated in fragrant spices and heaps of garlic, maintaining a crunch and packing a punch. These really stand on their own as a main and it’s no wonder people keep coming back for them.
We can’t resist ordering the Deep Fried Short Pork Ribs with sesame seeds in Chinese Style Delicious Sweet Sauce (€10.50). What arrives are tender pieces of pork covered in a sugary sweet sauce that hardens and creates a sort of savoury meat candy. You can have too much of a good thing and this sweet dish is made for sharing.
The dessert menu is made up of bought-in mousse and ice-cream but anyway we don’t need dessert. With a few beers, a peach juice and a pot of green tea, our bill comes to €49.60.
As Chinese food culture seems to be about family and bringing people together, sharing is a given. Having worked in the restaurant since the first day it opened, the staff of M&L are encouraged to feel like part of an extended family. “We all eat together as a family at the end of every single night and most of the conversation is about the dishes served that evening or indeed about the food we are eating while we are having that conversation,” Angie says. “Real Chinese food is really a passion for our dedicated M&L staff. It’s a love affair of sorts, one in which your heart never gets broken.”
M&L Szechuan Chinese Restaurant