A Tale of Three (Irish) Restaurants

A word of warning. This is not a restaurant review. It’s just a reflection of what it’s like to visit Irish restaurants where you are made feel at home and embraced and welcomed like old friends of the family.
It’s been a quare few weeks. My Mum ended up in hospital for a week or two but has made an excellent recovery, my daughter Claire experienced various traumas at the hands of the normally excellent Australian health services but is also on the mend, I got stricken down by a bug that has had me flattened and fairly uncommunicative for over two weeks.
But this week we were reunited in Ireland, a rare coming together of three generations of the women in our family to celebrate my Mum’s birthday and mine which she and I share on 18th July and to catch up with Claire’s friend Diane who is dealing, with spirit, with her own health challenges at the moment.
Normally on these occasions I do most of the cooking at home but this time it made more sense to have our special meals out. As a result we’ve eaten in three different restaurants in the past week, all a powerful reminder that the so-called “Irish welcome” is not a myth, it’s a very special experience of being treated like guests and not just as customers.
Restaurant 1 – China Sichuan, Sandyford, Dublin
First up was China Sichuan in Sandyford, Dublin. Kevin Hui the owner has become a friend since he welcomed me inside the kitchen of the China Sichuan nearly a year ago when this blog was barely new born. It has become our “go to” place for family reunions and departures. It’s where we had our farewell dinner for Shane and his Chinese wife Shan when they were home a few months back and Shan declared it more authentically Chinese than she had ever experienced outside China.
Kevin has acquired a new chef recently, Andy Foo who has worked in Yauatcha in Soho, London which is my favourite Chinese restaurant on the planet. Andy is doing fabulous things to the menu at China Sichuan. He is refreshing old favourites like Luo Bo Gao (Chinese turnip cake) and gradually introducing new dishes including soft shell crab with roasted almonds which is sublime.
Last Tuesday night we went there with Claire and Mike and her friend Diane and simply put ourselves in the hands of Kevin to organise an impromptu tasting menu which would play to our taste for Sichuan food and our flagging appetites. Dish after dish appeared at our table, some hearty meat dishes zinging with spice, some light, steamed fish releasing the fresh flavours of the sea, vegetable and noodle dishes in heart-catching sauces, none gloopy or clawing, all bursting with flavour. All five of us were blown away by the experience. Taste buds tickled for the first time in many weeks, we left sated and oozing contentment and collapsed at home to watch Enchanted together because who doesn’t like a happy ending.

Family get together at China Sichuan

For once, living in the moment, I didn’t take many photos of the food but on 31st July you can have the chance to experience this quality of food for yourself. Chef Andy Foo has arranged a special tasting menu of 7 dishes, each paired with wines for €75 and all proceeds go direct to Laura Lynn Children’s Hospice. You can read about it on China Sichuan’s Facebook Page here. Kevin didn’t ask me to mention this but I’m doing so because it is a very special cause. Kevin is cycling Paris to Nice for the cause later this year with a group of his friends and customers.
Restaurant 2 – Samphire at the Waterside
Next up was Thursday’s visit to Samphire at the Waterside in Donobate where we were joined from Wexford by my Mum to celebrate our birthdays. So there were now six of us including Diane who we decided (not for the first time) to adopt as our second daughter for the week. Chef Tom Walsh at Samphire is another of the friends I made through the blog and Twitter as he got involved unsolicited in giving me ideas for recipes such as Braised Pork Cheeks and of course his chilli jam is now legendary. He is an emerging talent to watch.
We dined on delicious food of local provenance from the set menu and the optional extra dishes. We had the best of fresh, local seafood, vegetables and lamb beautifully presented in a glorious location as the sun set over the Irish sea after another peachy day.
Three generations at Samphire at The Waterside

Best friends forever

Consider a trip out by train some summer evening or arrange to stay over night over the autumn or winter. The nice folks at the Waterside will collect your from Donobate Station and return you there. Be warned Tom, I intend paying a visit to your kitchen some day soon.
Claire and Mike returned to the UK yesterday for a week so I decided to spend some quality time with my Mum and we had an evening of great entertainment at Michael Bublé at the O2 last night courtesy of tickets I won from the nice people at Rewarding Times.
Today Mum and I made a cross-country trek via Kildare Village to the lovely folks at A Room Outside, Caroline and Liam so that I could investigate a Big Green Egg barbecue and onwards to Duncannon. (Watch this space dear readers, the Big Green Egg is a very sophisticated version of the traditional Chinese ceramic clay pot and I’m smitten. Now I just have to convince my Mum that it’s not called a “Big Green Chicken”.)
Big Green Egg – smitten!

Restaurant 3 – Sqigl, Duncannon
I tweeted ahead yesterday as I often do to see if Sqigl could fit us in for a quick early-bird in this friendly neighbourhood restaurant above Roches Bar. Bur shock, horror, the restaurant was block-booked for the night by a local group. Not to worry, a quick consultation with the chef and Cindy came back by Twitter to say the chef would open early at 6.30 to feed me and my Mum before the group arrived.
There’s something about coming into Wexford via the Passage East – Ballyhack ferry which, at any time, catches the back of my throat but today, with my Mum at my side, after travelling the glorious green and verdant Irish countryside not yet parched yellow by the heat of the last few weeks, it was very special. It was that sweep down into Duncannon, past Star of the Sea church with the view over the harbour and the sea more blue and the tide fuller than I’ve ever seen it.
The new menu cover at Sqigl – photo by Gerry Browne

We made it to Sqigl on the dot of 6.30 as they unlocked the door specially for us. The lovely local staff served us simple, delicious prawns and scallops, followed by locally caught hake and fresh fruit pavlova. Squigl is a quality local restaurant serving fresh, flavoursome, locally sourced food. It never disappoints.
Scallops Squigl style

Perfect fresh hake at Sqigl

My Mum and I walked back up the hill to our little summer house linking arms as the sun set.
Three very different restaurants. Three friends made as a direct result of this blog and Twitter. Three places that restore my faith in Ireland, our people, our innate kindness, our hospitality and our food. And in all three places the value for money and service was excellent.
PS: The only ones missing form these few days of celebrations were Shane, Shan and Dermot. But they did send me this birthday photo greeting from Dermot, my first ever “happy birthday Nai Nai”. Say a collective “aw” people….
“Happy birthday Nai Nai”

Saba: The Cookbook – Stir-fried Beef with Cashews and Asparagus

To celebrate the Vietnamese New Year known as Tet, the lovely Paul Cadden, owner of  Saba Thai and Vietnamese Eatery on Clarendon Street Dublin, has given me a copy of Saba: The Cookbook – Inside a Thai/Vietnamese Kitchen to give away on the blog. The book traces the story of Saba and is beautifully illustrated and crammed with Thai and Vietnamese recipes, not to mention a great selection of cocktails.
Now this is the first time I’ve ever had a competition on the blog and, to be honest, I’m a teeny, weeny bit nervous. Bear with me a moment while I work up to it.
It all came about like this. The other day I was looking for help on Twitter to track down Sri Racha chilli sauce to make Kaffir Lime Chilli Prawns for Taste of China when up popped a helpful reply from @SabaDublin. So I dropped into Paul in this “happy meeting place” (that’s what the name means in Thai) for a chat.
Tet coincides with Chun Jie the Chinese Spring Festival and the Vietnamese are also marking the beginning of the Year of the Snake. Snakes are considered to be lucky in Vietnam, having a snake in the house is considered a good omen as it means your family will never starve. Hmmm… I can see certain issues with that if you’re living in Ireland.
Paul offered me the recipe for their fantastic New Year’s cocktail Dragon’s Tail from the cookbook for Taste of China. With our own little grandson Dermot having arrived in Beijing on the very tail of the Year of the Dragon, how could I resist… Try it at home or in Saba – grapefruit vodka, fresh dragon fruit and lemon juice muddled with crushed ice. You will feel as if you have been plunged back in time to colonial Hanoi. (Don’t you love that word “muddled”…)

Dragon’s Tail Cocktail

Vietnamese cuisine has been on my radar since my daughter Claire and her husband Mike went along to check out The Red Lantern in Sydney so I am keen to learn more about it and how it differs from Chinese food. I was delighted when Paul gave me a copy of Saba: The Cookbook so that I could try out some of their recipes at home and also gave me a second copy of the book to offer as a prize.
Which brings me to my first ever giveaway on the blog. As my daughter Claire would say “how exciting!!” Continue reading Saba: The Cookbook – Stir-fried Beef with Cashews and Asparagus

Happy Chinese Cooking in the Year of the Snake

I hope wherever you are in the world you have been enjoying celebrating the Chinese New Year and the Spring Festival or Chun Jie.
When I attended the launch of the Year of the Dragon in Meeting House Square, Dublin last February, I had no idea how important the year was going to become for me or that by the end of it we would have our own little Flying Dragon grandson in Beijing – Teng Teng is his pet name in Mandarin to symbolise the movement of the flying dragon but his full name is Dermot Gao O’Neill.

Dermot Gao O’Neill aged 3 days

So this year we celebrated the new year in style by attending the Chinese New Year Banquet in the Round Room of the Mansion House, sponsored by Etihad Airways and hosted with good humour by the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Naoise Ó’Muirí. It was great fun in a special and historic setting.
The Ceiling of the Round Room

We had a full Spring Festival Chinese Style Banquet, using the best of Irish seafood, beef and other produce and then we were treated to a fusion of intercultural entertainment ranging from Chinese opera to a special performance of Riverdance which has taken China by storm.

A future Riverdancer in the making

Enter the Snake

Meanwhile I’ve been busy for the last week, over on www.cny.ie publishing a recipe each day to encourage a wider audience to explore the delicious and positive aspects of Chinese food. We have been featuring recipes from Chinese restaurants around Dublin and fusion dishes that show how Chinese cooking techniques influence the menu in some of our best Irish restaurants. I’ve also included some home-style recipes from Shan and her MaMa to show how easy it is to cook nutritious and appetising Chinese food at home.
When the Spring Festival is over I will tell you more about some of my experiences of reproducing these recipes as home and the pleasure I’ve got from learning new techniques  such as how to brine and smoke duck and how to make home made chilli jam and  ginger and cucumber pickles. For now I just want to point you in the direction of some of my favourite recipes from the last week. You will find all of them at Taste of China on the Dublin Chinese New Year Festival website here.
I got so much pleasure out of recreating head chef at Isabel’s Baggot St., Niall O’Sullivan’s Lapsang Souchong Tea-Smoked Duck with Scallops, that I felt briefly like a participant on MasterChef, especially with Niall at the other end of a tweet reminding me not to put too much orange in the smoking mix and to let the duck rest after smoking. My first attempt is photographed below.
Tea-smoked duck with scallops

I liked the lapsang souchong smoked flavour so much that the following night I made a simpler variation, thinly slicing the duck and serving it with the chilli jam I had made for the recipe for Spring Rolls of Duck Confit which the head chef of Samphire@the Waterside, Tom Walsh gave me for Taste of China. As Niall says, I’m not quite sure which chef should get the royalties for that one!
Tom’s chilli jam, which I got right on my second attempt is to die for.
Homemade Chilli Jam

My first attempt at his spring rolls didn’t look quite as pretty as Tom’s version but they sure passed the taste test and were given a firm thumbs up by my tasters at home.
Confit Duck Spring Rolls

I loved the way my Twitter chef friends entered into the spirit of the Spring Festival, shared their creativity with me and showed endless patience with my attempts to learn their professional techniques.
I’ve also enjoyed getting more recipes from my favourite Chinese restaurant in Ireland – China Sichuan in Sandyford, Dublin who were the first to let me inside their kitchen. Indeed I have so many of owner Kevin Hui’s recipes now that I could almost produce his unofficial cookbook. Chongqing Chicken is a dish I’ve tried to guess the recipe for several times at home so it is great to have the authentic version. And no, the amount of dried chilli mentioned in the recipe is not a mistake. Large quantities of dried chilli are used in this dish for colour and effect. They are not all meant to be eaten. I was quite pleased with my first attempt to recreate this dish at home and even got a compliment from Kevin for my efforts. This is going to be one of my staple week day suppers.
Chonqing Chicken

I’ve also discovered a few new (to me) Chinese restaurants in the past week and I can strongly recommend the recipes for Stir-fried Chicken with Celery from New Millennium restaurant beside the Gaiety in Dublin, MaPo Tofu from Green Dragon Well in Killiney Co. Dublin and Kaffir Lime Chilli Prawns from Chi Asian Takeaway in Galway.
I will be posting more Chinese and fusion recipes on Taste of China in the coming week but meanwhile, happy cooking and…
Chun Jie Kuai Le – Happy Spring Festival.
May the Year of the Snake bring health, happiness and prosperity to you and your families wherever you are in the world.

Inside the Kitchen of the China Sichuan, Dublin

My first experience of Chinese food was at The Universal in Wicklow St, Dublin. As a 17 year old just out of school and “up from the country” there was a heady excitement about spending Saturday morning in the Dandelion market followed by a 10 shilling lunch of chicken and sweetcorn soup, chicken curry with fried rice and pineapple fritters with ice-cream. Oh the sophistication. I can still taste those thick gloopy slices of onion and chicken in their curry sauce. Later I graduated to Wong’s and to this day a Chinese meal doesn’t seem quite right without a few After Eights with the bill. I hankered for them in Beijing.
Sometime in the early 80s, when Claire and Shane were small children, I started cooking Chinese food at home using recipes and sauces from Sharwoods – yellow bean, black bean, hoi sin, sweet and sour, hot chilli. Our first dinner guests sent us a thank you note (people used to do that in those days) asking if we had a bevy of Chinese staff working away in the kitchen. Little did I know where this was heading…

My first Chinese cookbook

A few years ago I re-discovered the China Sichuan – www.china-sichuan.ie – when food critic Tom Doorley reviewed it in its new location in Ballymoss Rd., Sandyford Industrial Estate, Dublin and I was lured there by the scent of tea-smoked duck and drawn back by the fiery taste of sichuan peppers, a far cry from the Cantonese food of my early Chinese food experiences.
China Sichuan, Sandyford Dublin

Yesterday Kevin Hui allowed me into his kitchen to watch his head chef Ricky prepare 4 dishes that I should be able to reproduce at home. Well that’s the theory anyway.
China Sichuan is a good example of the challenge top end Chinese restaurants face in the current climate – stick to traditional versions of, in this case, Sichuan cuisine and run the risk that the food will be perceived as too heavy and oily for current tastes; or give the dishes a fresh modern take with the danger of alienating loyal customers and Chinese chefs who like to do things the old way. I encountered the same tensions in China but was bowled over by an emerging lighter, experimental cuisine that still respects traditional ingredients. China Sichuan strives to get the balance right using quality Irish meats and importing specialist spices. I just hope they keep on experimenting.
Sichuan Grilled Chicken
The first dish they showed me is one of the Head Chef’s new dishes – chicken thigh off the bone, marinated for a few hours in chilli bean paste, chilli powder, sichuan pepper (dry-fried and ground) and grilled for about 20 minutes on a medium heat. Simple, light and delicious served with a hot chilli and garlic sauce. It is still work in progress and doesn’t even have a name yet.
Sichuan grilled chicken

Seafood “Typhoon” Style
The second dish was the one that plunged me back into the heart of China and the Sichuan flavours I had come to love. Similar sized pieces of sole, scallops, prawns and monkfish were scored, dipped in egg white and potato flour and very quickly deep fried in a wok while Choi Sum (Chinese spinach) was plunged into boiling water for a minute in the wok next to it.
Most of the oil was discarded from the wok and a paste of minced ginger and garlic added, followed by fresh chilli and spring onions cut at steep angles into “horse ear” slices, dried chilli, Sichuan pepper and fermented black beans which had been soaked in water for a few minutes. The fish was added back in for a few moments to warm through and some chilli oil and Maggi sauce were added to finish it off. This dish made me almost want to cry with pleasure so evocative were the flavours of my recent trip to China. The name “Typhoon” is a literal translation of a modern Sichuan cooking style.
Deep-frying the fish in a wok

Seafood “Typhoon” Style

Fish Flavoured Pork Shreds in Garlic and Ginger Sauce
Third up was Yu Xiang Rou – Fish Flavoured Pork Shreds in Garlic Sauce. Kevin gave me the recipe for this and I will post it in the next day or two. Using fillet of pork, it is probably one of the more famous dishes from Sichuan. Nary a fish or even fish sauce gets near it but in this land locked province it uses ingredients and spices normally associated with the preparation of seafood.
Yu Xiang Rou – Fish Flavoured Pork Shreds

Ma Po Tofu
I loved tofu dishes when I was in China, the extraordinary ability of the bean curd to absorb the flavours of spices and oils. Ma Po Tofu is a Sichuan classic and Kevin recommended I source an original recipe for it from Fuchsia Dunlop author of Every Grain of Rice and Revolutionary China Cookbook among others. Kevin was the second person to mention Fuchsia Dunlop to me recently. Food blogger Joanne Cronin (@dudara; www.stitchandbear.com) also said she was a must-read for my growing Chinese bookshelf.
Ma Po Tofu uses diced tofu soaked in water and heated through in a mixture of yellow bean paste, chilli bean paste, dried chilli, Sichuan pepper and Chicken broth. I’m sure I’ve left out ingredients here – spring onions, a pinch of sugar, a dash of sesame oil and chilli oil perhaps – but I promise to track down a complete recipe.
Ma Po Tofu

Fried Green Beans
As we were finishing up, I mentioned the difficulty I had re-creating the fried green beans from Shan’s recipe for fried green beans so the chef grabbed a handful of beans and showed me how to do it. I was beside myself with excitement when I discovered that the secret to those crinkly edges on the beans is that you deep-fry the un-cooked beans for a few minutes in the hot oil until the skin bubbles, then drain them, discard most of the oil and fry off your ginger and garlic paste, Sichuan peppers, pieces of dried chilli and salt.The chefs believe the inner seeds of the green beans will cause you food poisoning if not fully cooked and they do not like steaming the beans as this draws out too much water and loses the texture of the vegetable.
Today’s version was a vegetarian one using Sichuan pickled vegetables but a similar approach will work with minced pork as in Shan’s recipe.
Draining the deep-fried green beans

Now this is what I had been missing!
“Proper” Sichuan Fried Green Beans

A few random insights
One of the great pleasures of my visit to China Sichuan was to watch the deftness with which the chefs used their woks, the flick of the wrist with the ladles, the back of the deep ladle used to constantly keep food on the move, the versatility of the woks – within moments changing from a deep fat fryer to a steamer to a pan of boiling water to a shallow fryer, the lightening speed of cooking, the instinct for a pinch of this, a dash of that to get the balance just right. I know sugar, salt, sesame oil, chilli oil, soy sauce, chicken powder featured in many of the dishes as well as the holy trinity of ginger, garlic and spring onions but I wasn’t fast enough to catch them all. I just marvelled at the ease of the chefs and their effortless familiarity with their station and tried to visualise this relatively small space on a busy Saturday night with every dish freshly cooked in minutes.
So this is how you use a ladle

I learnt that chicken thigh is more tender and tasty than chicken breast and that sichuan pepper can be dry-roasted and ground down to provide a more subtle seasoning. Apart from some cook books I’ve added a few items to my shopping list – Maggi Sauce, Chilli Paste, Sichuan Vinegar and Sichuan Garlic Sauce as well as a proper Chinese strainer.
I am also contemplating, with some glee, setting Shane and Shan the challenge of re-creating the first 4 dishes, in their own style, in Beijing.
So a big thank you to Kevin Hui, to Head Chef Ricky and his team and to Alan the waiter who interpreted between Mandarin and English for the afternoon.
With Head Chef Ricky at China Sichuan

And a special thank you to Pat O’Reilly of Alexis Bar and Grill, Dun Laoghaire (@alexisdublin; www.alexis.ie) who made this all possible by picking up on my Twitter plea for a chance to learn from the professionals and connected me up with Kevin.
Of course all this has left me even more determined to learn how to wield that cleaver and use that wok properly. Cookery lessons anyone? 😉