The China-Sichuan is unique among Dublin restaurants. Firstly, for its uncompromising culinary credo. Secondly, for the clean-cut way in which it divides the dining out fraternity. The China-Sichuan you either love or hate, it seems. Extreme foodies, the sort who rattle their Globals on my website forum, are in the former camp. They agonised when the restaurant shut down earlier this year and rejoiced when, phoenix-like, it reopened. Many others, particularly people who relish Chinese food of the sticky toffee sauce variety are dismissive of the China-Sichuan and I can see why.
The food we’ve got to know and love as Chinese comes from Canton province. It was brought to the western seaboard of the USA by Chinese sailors and labourers, whence it got re-exported to Europe. Canton, in the south of China, enjoys a sub-tropical climate, giving two crops of rice a year and all manner of vegetables and exotic fruit in addition to an abundance of fish, fowl and meat. The variety of foodstuff available allows its culinary artists to paint with a rainbow palette and produce food that’s as beguiling to the eye as it is tasty to eat. The Cantonese are the poster boys for Chinese cuisine.
In contrast, Sichuan, in China’s western interior, has an altogether more austere culinary take. The main feature is an assault on the taste buds via a two-pronged attack using the tiny, russet berries we know as ‘Sichuan peppercorns’ which give a tongue–numbing sensation combined with dried red chillies, more potent than in their fresh state. This violent assault has to be curbed to suit Western palates and it may well be that Sichuan food, throttled back in this fashion, comes over as a tad monochromic, impeccably fresh ingredients notwithstanding.
Another controversial aspect of the China-Sichuan is its relocation to Sandyford, not so much a love/hate vibe as “Can I be bothered going there at all?” I can see the advantages of this non-City centre, non-Ranelagh dining strip location. There’s plenty of parking, easy accessibility via the LUAS if you want to have a jar or two. It works in other cities – for instance in Adelaide, South Australia, where locals are happy to hike out to a nondescript shopping mall in the boonies because of the existence of a good restaurant. Yet there are many who would find the lack of external ambience depressing. A trading estate is only a trading estate, no matter how much it was bulled up as one of the seven wonders of modern Ireland during the Tiger Years.
Sibs and I rocked up on a Thursday night to find the China-Sichuan agreeably busy. Kevin Hui, proprietor, greeted us at the door and took our coats. The split dining room is decently got up in a restrained contemporary fashion. Chairs are comfortable and tables far enough apart to allow for intimacy, or at least the feeling that your bons mots won’t be repeated at someone else’s breakfast table. It was the first chill autumn night of the year so I kicked off with a hot-and-sour soup, made in Sichuan style with chicken shreds, not the typical mock-Cantonese assortment of pork, prawns and tofu. Greedy guts me also had a second starter, the chili soft shell crab, of which I could have eaten a mountain. Sibs, frugal darling, had opted to eat off the two course early evening menu (€20). Something of a connoisseur when it comes to spring rolls, she pronounced the China-Sichuan’s just about the best she’d had in Dublin.
Next came a complimentary dish on which Kevin asked for feedback. “It’s not quite on the menu,” he said. It was another starter. A roll of sea bass, cooked just a point, into which was stuffed spears of green asparagus and slivers of daikon. We gave it an enthusiastic thumbs-up.
For a main course I took the ‘spicy’ aged rib-eye, coated in three peppers, a dish a friend had eulogised about as “better than the similar dish at Hakkasan”, praise indeed. Taking his tip, I asked for it a little spicier than the norm. More than anything else, this sophisticated dish gave a clue as to where the China-Sichuan is at; it’s now a restaurant that’s combining top-class ingredients and thoroughly modern cheffing, going upmarket to make the most of a relatively restricted culinary tradition. Unlike Cantonese cooking, where the saucing steals the show, Sichuan stands or falls on the quality of the raw materials and this was a top drawer steak, sensitively treated. Sibella was more than happy with her fried prawns with ginger and scallions, the prawns springy and flavoursome. The China-Sichuan is one of the few restaurants in which I’d be happy to eat fried rice, all too often the real culprit for the next morning malaise that’s normally laid at the door of MSG. We also took a side dish of perfectly cooked bok choi.
It was heartening to see the ever-more widely adopted practice of making wine available by the glass, carafe or bottle. Kudos to the China-Sichuan for a wine list that included the excellent Alsace gewürztraminer of Meyer-Fonne We drank it, by the way, not because gewurz is the best partner for Chinese food, a daft old saw you often hear, but simply because that was what we fancied drinking.
To sum up, we were happy with the €91.50 ex-service, including wine and Chinese tea, we paid. Ireland needs some high end Chinese restaurants to remind us just how good the cuisine of that country can be. The China-Sichuan is working very hard to take pole position and I’d like to see a Cantonese emerge that has equivalent aspirations.
China-Sichuan The Forum, Ballymoss Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18. Tel: 01 293 5100