The burgeoning Chinatown in the hinterland of O’Connell Street has thrown up a good many restaurants, some worthy of a visit, some less so. These places are a world away from the Chinese restaurants we grew up with, a happy land of paper globes, toffee sauces and waitresses clad in whatever the Chinese equivalent of ‘kimono’ is called. The new eating houses exist principally to fuel the Chinese community. The dining rooms are frill-free. There is little English spoken. Many of them seem uncomfortable with the very concept of feeding occidentals, though some have adapted by providing pictorial menus, akin to those in Spanish or Greek seaside resorts. Whenever I go to one of these places there’s always a party of Chinese at the next table. The Chinese love to eat – a Chinese equivalent of “how are you?” is “have you eaten yet?” – and they’re deadly serious about it. The food they are eating looks different to the fodder in front of you. Chopsticks clicking away, they swoop at a bejeweled plateful of something-or-other or dive into an enormous bowl of broth to pluck out a morsel. “My God,” you think. “I’d love to try some of that.” Trouble is, how to acquire it. Well, I’ve tried the Harry-met-Sally gambit and it doesn’t work. To compound the difficulty the waiters frequently go to great lengths to inform you that what you are trying to order either doesn’t exist or, for some reason, is unavailable. I think they want to protect you from yourself. Dining in London’s Lisle Street I tried in vain to procure the honey-roasted sausages I’d heard so much about. “You won’t like them” said the waiter. I riposted “Let me be the judge of that”. He gave me the politest blank look I’ve ever encountered. Somehow my words must have got through, though, for after a brief trip to the kitchen he returned, saying “Chef made some this morning. They not good. He not serve.” The chef came out of the kitchen to support this claim. I gave up. There’s no arguing with a man who wields a big cleaver. The other day a friend told me of this restaurant where they sold ‘egg yolked soft shell crabs’. “I don’t think they really want you to have them though”. That did it. The very next night found Foodmad (who better?) and me trekking past the Bertie pole in the autumnal gloom. M & L, next door to the Pro-Cathedral, is a plain but scrupulously clean and tidy place, right down to the ‘offices’. We were glad we’d booked for, at 7.45, the dining room was packed with Chinese – couples, business quartets and families. The pleasant young waiter brought the menu and a big pot of jasmine-scented tea. “About these crabs…” I said. Initially, he denied its existence. Then he relented, willing-if-not-quite-happy to provide crab with ginger and scallions. Though I consider it one of the world’s great dishes it wasn’t what I wanted. We were after the soft shell variety, the mange tout of crustaceans. The words “egg yolk” seemed to do the trick. Afterwards he was on our side. With the exception of a plateful of Cantonese roast duck of which I am excessively fond we left the rest of the meal to him. He brought us chilli squid, melt-in-the mouth, clad in a whisper-light batter; a spicy beef dish in a broth; chicken for heroes, bite sized pieces, surrounded by peanuts and an arsenal of chillies. We drank Chinese beer, an effective fire extinguisher, along with the tea. It was a monumental meal and the crabs were the crowning glory. Not stewed till squishy as I’d had them before in Hong Kong but coated in an egg-yolk and spice dip and deep fried. You could devour the lot, carapace, legs and all, crunching them like crisps, but there was such a mountain of them we didn’t bother once the novelty of doing so had worn off. The crab meat within was terrific, full of flavour, worth going through the whole rigmarole to acquire. Only disappointment was the duck. The Chinese themselves eat this plain dish “as it comes”, hot, lukewarm or cold. Good hosts, they assume that Europeans like their food hot and their duck crispy and off the bone, so they fillet and re-fry, which robs the flesh of its succulence. It was my fault. Though I did manage to get them to leave the bone in, my appetite for confrontation wilted at this point. I should have persevered. Relaxed, once he had seen we were happy with his choice, our new friend confided “Next time ask for ‘original Chinese menu’”. We certainly will. We’d consumed a mountain of food, having ordered through enthusiasm and natural greed what was probably enough for five people. He produced some plastic boxes and Foodmad happily carted the leftovers home. M & L – never did find out the origin of the name – is undoubtedly the best of the new breed of Chinese restaurants. It probably won’t be well-received by Dame Street devotees although I’m sure sweet-and-sour something lurks somewhere on the menu. But any foodie with a taste for ethnic authenticity and an ability to climb out of the comfort zone should beat a path to the door.
Verdict: Clean, friendly, affordable, authentic, grab the crabs
For all the above we spent just over €70 and it would have fed 6!
M & L Szechuan Chinese Restaurant, 13 Cathedral St, Dublin Tel: 01 874 8038