In Hong Kong and in parts of Southern China many of the Chinese restaurants start serving at five in the morning. The clientèle, at that time of day, consists largely of ‘people of mature years’, who, having done their exercises and read the papers, have decided it’s time to eat.
Me, I’m not quite that virtuous. It’s 10.30 by the time I’ve rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, shuffled downstairs, found my glasses, done my statutory twelve minutes dancing on the rebounder to The Kinks or Bob Marley’s ‘Legend’, showered, dressed and glanced at the post mortems on Man City’s latest capitulation. But as the Ming Court, the restaurant designated for this week’s review, doesn’t open till 12.30, what’s the hurry?
The Ming Court is located in the middle of the Blanchardstown Shopping Centre. It’s above Xtravision, housed in a building that looks like an afterthought, certainly not the sort of edifice that would have been included on any retail development’s original plans, the ones with swards of green and ranks of architect-drawn mature trees drawn for the purpose of gulling the planners and luring the punters. Unprepossessing, is that the word?
The plan was to meet Foodmad for an assortment of dim sum, washed down, in the traditional manner, with Chinese tea. Foodmad was ever so slightly miffed ‘cos he thought we were going to Mint, but he got over it! For those unfamiliar with the delights of Cantonese cuisine, dim sum are small portions of light dishes, a sort of Chinese tapas if you like. These may include meat, seafood and vegetables dishes, as well as fruit and small cakes. Dim sum may be steamed or fried usually served in a small steamer basket or on a small plate, three or four items to the portion. It is customary to order family style, sharing dishes among all members of the dining party. Chinese families typically like to gather at Chinese restaurants for dim sum at weekends and on special occasions such as anniversaries, significant birthdays and Chinese New Year when the consumption of dim sum becomes akin to ritual.
In years past, dim sum in Dublin has been largely the province of three restaurants; the Imperial, on Wicklow Street; the New Millennium adjacent to the Gaiety Theatre and The Good World on South Great Georges’ Street, each with its own set of adherents. In all three, the Chinese community starts to filter in after what we would consider a normal lunch hour has expired. Latterly, the word on the street is that the Ming Court is becoming the dim sum house of choice among the Irish Chinese community, a phenomenon Foodmad and I were keen to investigate.
Dim sum menus, for the devotee, will contain few surprises. At the same time, being forced to choose will bring consternation, even panic, to anyone whose experience with Chinese food does not stretch much beyond sweet-and-sour. Here are some of the standard dishes: gow (also written as ‘gau’ or ‘goi’) are made of ingredients wrapped in a translucent rice flour or wheat starch skin and then steamed. They are considered difficult to make, a test of the dim sum chef’s skill. If the skin is too thin the gow falls apart; if too thick, eating one is like munching your way through one of those jellified bathing shoes. Siu mai is another steamed confection, seasoned minced pork, sometimes with a prawn or a Chinese mushroom on top, the whole wrapped in a cabbage leaf. These are my favourite and I reckon myself a great judge of siu mai. Bau or bow are buns, filled with a variety of goodies, the most common of which is char siu, barbecued pork, before steaming or baking. Cheng fun are rice noodle rolls with vegetables, meat or seafood inside, usually slathered in a sweetened soy sauce. Other goodies include spring rolls, roasted meats – chicken, duck and various kinds of pork – and pastries, some of them sweet. Among the more exotic varieties of dim sun (not for the faint-hearted) are items like spicy chicken’s webs, tripe, and curried sea snails (read ‘whelks).
As with other culinary styles, the devil is in the delicacy. The steamed dim sum, in particular, do not benefit from raucous seasoning or extended cooking. Wrappers should be thin and filling plentiful. Fried items should be crisp and not greasy. From the edible evidence Foodmad and I decided that the Ming Court’s chef is a fairly good, though not outstanding exponent of the art. The next day, wandering around the Chinese supermarket on Abbey Street and glimpsing the spellbinding variety of dim sum in the freezers I did wonder if everything, or indeed anything we ate was the work of the chef. But at the end of the day, does it matter? Probably not. I doubt that any restaurant kitchen in Ireland would see the need to employ a dim sum specialist – contrast, say Hong Kong or even London or Manchester where large Chinese communities force the pace and keep standards high.
As a neighbourhood Chinese, the Ming Court is up there. I’d be happy to have it in my neck of the woods. I’m inordinately fond of roast duck and the plateful they brought us to augment our dim sum had Foodmad and me fighting over the last piece. The spiced noodles, as recommended by the waitress, were excellent too. In fact the staff, energetic, helpful and friendly are the Ming Court’s prime asset; in contrast to other restaurants where the refusal to give more than token service to ‘foreign devils’ is a given. As a dim sum diner, however, it doesn’t knock the Imperial off its perch.
The damage: €56.15 for 7 dim sum, plate roast duck, portion of noodles, lashings of Chinese tea. Service included.
Verdict: Better than average Chinese neighbourhood restaurant in search of a neighbourhood, set down, tardis-like, in Blanchardstown shopping centre.
Decent food, wonderful staff, unremarkable ambience. Clean, plain toilets.
Ming Court, Unit 453 Blanchardstown, Dublin 15 tel: 01 824 3388