A se­cret taste of China

Old Town is a no- frills place where the food is the real deal

The Irish Times Magazine - - FOOD -

There are snowflakes in the win­dow of Old Town on Dublin’s Capel Street. They are the dan­gly light kind rather than the hu­man va­ri­ety. But pre­ma­ture snowflakes are for­giv­able when a place smells this tasty. In­side the bare wooden ta­bles are busy. Asian din­ers, most of them young, one boy with his face buried hap­pily in a book, are sip­ping Cokes from cans with straws and chat­ting. You get the feel­ing this is a reg­u­lars kind of place. Staff and cus­tomers seem to know each other well.

I heard about Old Town f rom a friend of a friend who used to live in Bei­jing. It was, she said, one of two places in Dublin where she could eat the kind of Chi­nese food she dis­cov­ered in Bei­jing. In­side it’s a bright worka­day fin­ish, a dark lam­i­nate floor which clat­ters l oudly any time some­thing i s dropped. The light­ing is stark. Pa­per lanterns spell out the name of the place from the ceil­ing and the chairs are glazed in a high shine var­nish the colour of freshly fallen conkers. No hip­ster tropes have been harmed in the mak­ing of this restau­rant.

The menu is an epic saga printed on black l am­i­nated pages i n a l eather- bound book and turn­ing from English with­out pic­tures to a mix­ture of English and Can­tonese with pic­tures. There are chef’s rec­om­men­da­tions, a list­ing in the veg­etable dishes sec­tion of lentils with pork mince, and an­other of “fried corns with pine nuts,” which if it hasn’t been lost in trans­la­tion def­i­nitely takes nose to tail eat­ing to its ul­ti­mate level.

We are suf­fer­ing from that very first- world com­plaint of what my friend de­scribes as “too much choice,” a bout of repet­i­tive strain in­jury com­ing on from flip­ping the pages back and forth. We end up or­der­ing so much that they move us to a ta­ble for four. The first plate in a flurry of food to ar­rive is the dish I ex­pect to like the least. A cold salad of jel­ly­fish and cu­cum­ber? One to taste, slide qui­etly to one side and tell my kids about later. But it’s great. The jel­ly­fish el­e­ment looks like a tan­gle of sweetly fried strips of onion and is squeaky and chewy, like rub­bery glass noo­dles. The cu­cum­ber is sliced into crunchy spears and the whole plate is slathered in a chilli and vine­gar sauce that has just the right amount of heat and tang.

There are five fat pork dumplings in a steamer, their pas­try soft, thick and good, swirled in the jel­ly­fish sauce. Paul gets Pork Yuk Sung, pork mince served on crispy fried noo­dles. It comes with a half head of freshly washed ice­berg let­tuce to be used to scoop the meat like posh canapé baby gem boats. There’s a whole seabass served head on in a stain­less steel bath where it’s still bub­bling and blip­ping, with the heat from a burner un­der­neath. The fish is topped with a bliz­zard of mild chillis, pep­per­corns and a light broth. There are wedges of fresh gin­ger so fiery they feel like the food ver­sion of a flu jab, and clumps of thready mush­rooms so fine they look at first glance like a pile of fish bones. My crispy duck with salted egg yolk has been coated in egg bat­ter and fried with seams of yel­low yolk cooked into the meat. It’s on the over­cooked side so it has lost that lovely bal­ance be­tween crispy skin and lus­cious slightly rare meat, but i t ’ s t as t y i n a gnarly deep- fried way. Fried aubergine with soy is tooth- achingly sweet and tastes weirdly like fish and chip shop bat­ter.

The dessert card looks like a range of su­per­mar­ket freezer va­ri­eties and the pineap­ple and ba­nana frit­ters aren’t on so we fin­ish with a gen­er­ous pot of jas­mine tea served in lovely han­dle- less cups. We are the last peo­ple here and there is a lot of floor clean­ing, black sack car­ry­ing and gen­eral house­keep­ing be­fore the staff set­tle down to eat at the back of the restau­rant.

As we in­creas­ingly seal our­selves in our own bub­bles, food can be a pass­port to some­one else’s bub­ble to try the jel­ly­fish or just some plain egg fried rice. Old Town is a wel­com­ing bub­ble. It feels like a se­cret taste of home for peo­ple who love a broader palate of Chi­nese food.

Din­ner with a beer, a glass of wine and jas­mine tea came to ¤ 83.05.

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