Where did all the Fun go? We (and in that roll call I include critics, restaurateurs, chefs and punters) have all got so damned serious about our food and wine that there are no laughs to be had any more. Until this week I couldn’t recall the last time I came back from having dinner in a restaurant with a severe case of belly ache – the kind brought on by uncontrollable laughter, not indigestion. I’m not talking works ‘Christmas do’s’ here: not enjoyment of the descent into alcohol-fuelled oblivion or “Guess who you were snogging last night” kind. I’m talking good old-fashioned rib-tickling Fun. With a capital ‘F’.
The evening began on a sombre note. The venue had previously housed a restaurant that was the subject of my first review for F&W, a Rant of Mass Destruction so apocalyptic I made Helen Lucy Burke read like Mills & Boon. I won’t go into details other than to say the evening started as a disaster and built to a climax, a fiasco I faithfully chronicled with a pen dipped in napalm. My editor pulled the piece, probably just as well. So, ulcer tugging at my heartstrings, I entered Chai Yo somewhat reluctantly though I should stress it has no connection with the former tenant.
Downstairs it’s a mainstream Oriental restaurant which, the night we were there, seemed to be populated entirely by gorgeous twenty and thirty something females. From what I saw the best advice I can give to the young fancy-free Dublin bachelor is to shun Café en Seine and Renard’s on Friday night and spend an hour or two practising chopstick technique before heading for Baggot Street.
The tables on the ground floor are communal, two of them, each capable of seating around ten people. A vast gleaming stainless steel raft is let into each one, concealing a mini-gasworks providing instant heat, and lots of it. This apparatus is called a teppan, the style of cooking, teppanyaki. It is not strictly speaking a traditional Japanese cuisine, as most Japanese did not eat the meat from four legged animals until the 1870s. Teppanyaki was popularised in the States by ex-boxer Rocky Aoki, subsequently finding its way back home from where the fad was re-exported.
There was no choice of starter. You slurped your obligatory miso soup, included in the price of the main course. Miso soup evokes fond memories it seems. My dining diva, the elegant Lady Cassils ventured “It tastes like the nourishing broth your mum brought you when you were off-school ill. I used to love being ill.”
Choosing mains didn’t exercise the intellect much. Prawns, chicken, fillet steak, seafood combination or veggie option, all teppanyakified, was the choice. The waiter was entirely amenable to my having a 50/50 split of steak and prawns, while your one opted for the combo. I got a good deal, for reasons I’ll go into later. Lady C got a fantastic one.
At this point, enter ‘Marlon’ the Juggling Chef with a tray of prime raw ingredients. The glistening seafood looked so fresh you’d have thought it had done tail-flips from Tommy Mulloy the fishmonger over the road. The fillet steak was deepest carmine not the usual pallid red. Marlon (surely not his real name?) executed a few throw-catch-and- twirls with his palette knife, all with the dexterity of a marching band stickman. Chopping downward with the same implement caused decapitated prawn tails to fly into a strategically placed bowl and, as encore, into his hat.
Then it got semi-serious. Thinly sliced vegetables were fried briefly on the hot surface before being slid onto plates and handed over. The seafood, sparsely treated to ‘a dash o’ this and a dash o’that’ in Arfurdaleyspeak, followed suit. Milady felt she’d won the lottery. Seven fat scallops, a fair-sized fillet of sea bass and a rake of prawns sat begging to be consumed. Amazing, it cost, what e30, and there must have been at least e15’s worth of Tommy’s finest on the plate. I scammed a scallop and a morsel of the bass to go with my own pile of prawns. Everything was superb, flavour and texture immaculate, good raw ingredients minimally mucked-about. The benefit of ordering steak now became apparent. It was entertaining to watch the flames lick the roof as the chef, now rechristened Marlon Brandy-o lashed eau de vie onto the hot steel. Next he showed us a smart conjuring trick with a raw egg, before smashing it on the teppan and stirring it into a pile of pre-boiled rice.
The restaurant was filling up. We were joined at table by another couple whilst the adjacent theatre of teppanyaki was occupied by a table of ten, bestowing the bonus of watching someone else’s floorshow whilst eating your own.
Later we hauled Marlon back to ‘cook’ dessert – an Arctic bombe of ice cream with hot fresh fruit, again generously slathered with booze. Simple, but so refreshing. We took coffee in the adjacent bar, singing along to a Lennon & McCartney medley performed by a pair of Filipinos. This was a curious aspect of Chai Yo, despite the name and the teppans there didn’t seem to be a Japanese in sight. The proprietor is Frank Murphy (best remembered as Ireland’s Olympic representative, in his day the 5th fastest miler in the world). His co-proprietor Mrs Yuk Chan is Chinese. Staff are mainly Filipino. The bill came to around e144, ex service including a quantity of William Fevre’s excellent Chablis, ordered largely for sentiment’s sake (I’ve met the maker) though it did drink well and complement the fish nicely. Excess might have been the reason for her ladyship dragging Frank up for a dance. All good things come to an end though and eventually we stumbled out into Baggot Street, laughing all the way home.
Chai Yo, 100 Lr Baggot Street, Dublin 2 Tel: (01) 676 7652
Open Mon-Fri : 12.30 pm-3.00; 6.00-11.30; Sat: 5.30-midnight