I’m pouring this one out for Mr Ernie Whalley, whose abrupt dismissal from his post as restaurant critic with The Sunday Times (Ireland) marks a further decline in the state of serious (and impartial) food writing in Ireland. At the very least, I wish him well on having slipped the Murdoch yoke. With one or two exceptions, breadth of knowledge and the suggestion of a prose style don’t appear to be prioritised when these positions are dished out by editors in this country. I am not hopeful that his successor (when appointed) will represent a bucking of the trend. At least we’ll still have the blogs breathlessly broadcasting ‘the new thing’ while they figure out how to monetise this shit, viz – pointing and shouting. I’ll stop now before my stomach ulcer catches up with my train of thought. It seems dyspepsia goes with the territory.
While in NYC recently on the annual Mr & Mrs Stevens food safari, I got to thinking about how Chinese restaurants are changing in that City, and how perceptions regarding price and service are changing with them. For sixteen years now we’ve based ourselves on the Lower East Side, just a couple of blocks north of Manhattan’s old (and shrinking) Chinatown. What we’ve seen in the past couple of years is a new breed of modern restaurants dreamed up by the (often university educated) offspring of first or second generation immigrants that aim to challenge notions of authenticity while drawing attention to regional specificity. The chefs helming these places have often earned their spurs in notable fine-dining destinations too. Places such as Little Tong Noodle Shop, Hunan Slurp and Szechuan Mountain House (killer) have married a very design-conscious sensibility and acute brand awareness (check our Insta-game yo!) with a desire to educate the round-eye palate. The result has been electrifying.
If you are wondering why I constantly reference New York in this column it’s because that city’s dining landscape is often where we see global food trends bubble up and congeal. 12-18 months later somebody in London will discover that they have come to an identical conclusion and some years after that (if we are lucky) some enterprising Mick or Mary here will have a similar, if slightly careworn, epiphany. Feel like Korean fried chicken tonight? It is the Chinese whispers model of dining evolution and this connected age only works to shorten the timelines. One strain of the Chinese dining experience that seems relatively immutable, however, is that of Dim Sum, literally translated as ‘to touch your heart.’ (The ‘disease’ is silent.) From the momentarily unfashionable Cantonese canon, the notion of Dim Sum originates in the tea-houses of the Silk Road and reaches back over centuries. Western gastronauts are currently busying themselves exploring the rabbit-holes of the Hunnanese or Xi’an kitchens. Take it from me that those rabbit holes are as spicy as all get out and take no prisoners. I’m talking Gavisconomie here. Nevertheless, this less infernal, originally cart-delivered, succession of dumplings and delights is the Mac Daddy, the fons et origo of small-plates dining. It’s also something that you can enjoy right here in Dublin.
Ka Shing has been around for a couple of years on Wicklow Street without raising a lot of fuss. The room is not a pleasant one. Service on a nondescript Tuesday afternoon is almost disappointingly affable, devoid of the brusque disdain that I know I deserve. I recall a dinner in New York’s Chinatown (yes, again) where the service was so comedically disapproving (of my race, nationality, shoes?) that I began to suspect some kind of hidden camera set-up. As I mentioned, it is couth to take tea with Dim Sum, but I need to get back to the office after lunch so I restrict myself to sluicing down a few cold Tsingtaos. You don’t want to bother surveying the ‘wine lists’ in either of these places anyhow. Use the time saved to say something pleasant to the person sitting opposite you. The chief, giddy pleasure of Dim Sum for me, at least initially, is the feeling of reckless surfeit as the table is seemingly overrun with dishes. With most orders coming in around €4.50 and designed to share you should throw caution to the wind.
Turnip Cake, a Dim Sum stalwart (they all should be), here described a little more romantically as ‘Fried Radish Cake’ arrives as wobbling slices of deeply savoury matter studded with exit-wounds of bacon. It should tell you to look beyond the often janky menu descriptions. We wolf it back with little ceremony. Excellent dumplings are dispatched with equal vigour. These are the reason you are here. Put them down like they owe you money. Pork and Prawn with Chinese Chives are plump and juicy within translucent coverings, they demand to be downed in-one with a jolt of vinegar and finished with a gentle expletive. The Taro Croquettes display an impressive hedgehogish deep fried crag and give way to a deep earthiness. The Black Bean Sauce coating those Chicken Feet is potent enough to render a shank of Mother-in-Law palatable, but skip them unless you have at least one Chinese parent. Those raptory beclawed bits of gnarl defeat me. Order some egg-custard tarts because they are available.
Mr Dinh squats at the very scrag-end of Capel St and represents another challenge in terms of maximalist interior design. Giant canvasses in the style of Van Gogh bedeck the walls. They are in the style of Van Gogh in the way that, well, just finish that for yourself. Service acknowledges that we are in the room. That’s about the height of it. You’ll want to order more of those Tsingtaos here and pair them with some unreasonably good Deep Fried Squids (sic). The dumplings, especially the xiaolongbau are good too but don’t leave without experiencing the sexy, slippery pleasure of the Cheung Fun. These are long, glutinous raviolis that almost threaten to go down in one. If you are texturally timid, if you baulk at plates of whelk, or cavil at whorles of intestine, stick with the dumplings.
Both joints are doing justice to the venerable tradition of Dim Sum but for my money, or rather my publisher’s, Ka Shing just about shades it. Nevertheless, if neither of these places floats your boat, just get yourself on down to Lucky Tortoise, where you’ll find some of the best value (and Dim Sum) the city has to offer. Perhaps change is afoot after all.
Words: Conor Stevens
Photos: Killian Broderick
12 Wicklow St
101/102 Capel St
*Dim Sum service ends at 5pm