As I type from my balcony perch, overlooking the mouth of the bay, I can begin to smell the smoke of the first fishes hitting the restaurant grills below – spiny Škarpina and sleek silver Zubatac still stiff and clear-eyed from the crystalline waters of the Adriatic. There’s a wedding party singing Dalmatian songs on the parched village square (no, really) and snatches of harmony are carried on a soft breeze seasoned with brine and fragrant with wild thyme and savoury. It almost feels as if the island is trying to nourish as you go, there are branches weary under the weight of figs and pomegranates, almonds are shrugging off their rough coats, stripping down to their smoothness. Caper bushes push through every crack and crevice of every old stone wall and the olive harvest looks set fair to improve upon last year’s disappointing yield. Dublin is not like this. What better time then for a couple of dispatches from the Northside of our own fragrant river to talk about Chinese food. For the uninitiated these, Double Takes are not quite full reviews but intended as side-by-side snapshots of comparable spots. They are also intended to be a little less laborious for me. I am supposed to be on holiday.
Hakkahan has been a firm favourite since arriving on Stoneybatter’s main drag almost a year ago. The place is painted, inside and out, in a shade of pink that used to be called millennial but which I believe has since been re-branded as ‘drunk-tank’. It’s immediately apparent that this is one of the new wave of (‘ethnic’ but mostly) Chinese restaurants catering to their adopted (or not) audiences with a ‘western’ brand awareness, design aesthetic and truncated, navigable menus. The food is not dumbed down but the ‘experience’ is made less ‘foreign’ for bashful round-eyes who need to recognise the decor and service cues that act as wallet openers. See also Big Fan. Hang Dai started it. Such places may also have waving cats but you can read their presence as ironic if it makes you feel better.
Another signifier is an actual drinks list rather than the usual triumvirate of tea, Tsing Tao or critter label wine. You could have a bottle of Leon Beyer Gewurztraminer from Alsace or a Nappa Cabernet. There’s an interesting list of beers too, or you could fling good taste to the wind entirely and pound a few screwdriver bubble teas. I do none of those things because I’m labouring under a hangover of baroque complexity. I can vouch for the Coca Cola. They’ve done their best with a narrow space, there’s a kind of audio cassette feature on one wall for the Gen-Xers and a grouping of framed raves from the (five) titans of Irish restaurant writing on another, just for me. I feel the liberation of a flasher exposing himself rather than the pressure of performing a task overseen.
Smashed cucumbers are not a story anymore but I keenly recall when my first plate hit the table at Mission Chinese Food in New York City. It was ten years ago in the first incarnation on Orchard and the editor of this very organ was in attendance. High times. The version here is straight from the Sichuan canon, nutty with sesame oil and humming with heat. A touch of vinegar makes it a fresh pickle. You should make it at home. The much vaunted Salt & Pepper Fresh Squid eats well enough but could be crisper and will run a little salty for people who are not me. Scallop dumplings (Dai Zi) are moist, generously filled and heavy on the coriander. We would have enjoyed them even more with a little more time spent rolling the wrappers but that’s perhaps a matter of taste. Really quite delicious.
At this point a group of members of Dublin’s Fire Brigade Service pile in and I imagine a scenario where one of them orders the most incendiary thing on the menu and needs to be extinguished by his colleagues. Disappointingly, it’s Sweet & Sour Crispy Chicken all around, which they devour with relish. From the mains the glossy Stir Fried Aubergines stand out, with a stridently fruity flavour profile boosted with the umami of fermented Sichuan red beans. Also worth the price of admission is the Black Pepper Short Rib of Beef, with those bones cut laterally so that the attached ribbons of meat can be quickly wok-fried rather than slow braised. The toothsome texture of that meat won’t be to everyone’s taste but then what should be? The porcini mushrooms add even more power to a deeply lacquered sauce which creeps up in spice level. The Spicy MaLa Lamb leaves us both questioning whether we’re both missing something. Perfectly okay is not how this place is pitched. Service from the friendly woman manfully working the front of house and the floor is a joy.
If Hakkahan is new-wave then Lee’s Charming Noodles is resolutely no-wave or perhaps even null-core. So unself-aware that it might not really exist (like Lee himself). It is totally over being anything else other than a modest joint on Parnell Street slinging some of the best noodles in the city. A walk down the street’s length on a late Sunday afternoon describes a bustling, ethnically diverse, community. Let’s not talk about the junkies and the dereliction today. This place has been around since 2005 but I’m here for the first time on the recommendation of my current wife’s hairdresser (much obliged Carlin).
We are here, unsurprisingly, to eat noodles but we delay the gratification with an order of Salt & Chilli Squid and some excellent pan-fried Pork and Chive Dumplings. The squid dish is a couple of degrees better than Hakkahan’s, as good as it gets, crisp, dry, tender and perfectly seasoned. There’s a tangle of green onions, peppers and carrots for contrast. Those dumplings are house-made and better yet, the noodles are hand-pulled.
Lanzhao Noodles manifests as a deep steaming bowl of almost clear beef broth that pulls off the trick of being delicate and profoundly flavoured at once. The round noodles have just right amount of bite and the beef has been braised into yielding submission. The dish is finished with scallions and two thick half-moons of turnipy daikon. Halfway through I turn the broth ochre with a teaspoon of superb house-made chilli oil. Sublime. Szechuan Spicy Lamb Mix is a dry (brothless) preparation of medium-wide flat egg noodles (listen to your server) to be combined with a fiery chilli sauce textured with crushed peanuts and deeply savoury with fermented soy bean. Think Lao Gan Ma but better.
We are so impressed (and a little in love) that we bring an order of Singapore Noodles home for supper. Another triumph, even re-heated. The room doesn’t matter, your attention will be solely on the dishes before you. Service is bright and attentive. I’ve moved Lee’s Charming Noodles into the emotional berth that used to be occupied by This Charming Man.
I hope that it too will nourish me for many years without ever leaving the bad taste in my mouth that the song now does.
Words: Conor Stevens
Photos (Hakkahan): Killian Broderick
105 Parnell St