46, Harold's Cross Road, Dublin 6. 01-538 5000. 4 STARS
Harold's Cross has no heart. It has the safe house where the patriot Robert Emmet was arrested before his gruesome execution. It has a beautiful park, a historic cemetery, a hospice, a greyhound track, a school, a church, a post office. It's full of dog-walkers and pram-pushers, mourners and flower sellers, joggers and Bikram yoga addicts. You walk along the Harold's Cross Road expecting a village, but you hit Terenure, and realise that it's an artery in need of a heart.
Harold's Cross park is overlooked on one side by the empty San Damiano orphanage, on the other a stretch of pre-63 houses. The land around Harold's Cross is owned by the church and the council.The upside of this is that Harold's Cross was spared the boom-time gentrification that afflicted Dublin's inner suburbs.
Change comes as change must, and despite the recession Harold's Cross has seen new shops open, existing shops survive and amid a burgeoning sense of community, a kind of street culture has developed. The same week HX46 opened, a cast metal sign appeared welcoming you to Harold's Cross. What it's really saying is: you are no longer on a thoroughfare – you have arrived somewhere.
Outside HX46, a couple of tables sit hopefully – patiently – on the footpath. Last month it was a chipper, but now it's a "pan-Asian café" with a spruced up shop-front, smart tile-work and large gleaming windows. It opens from early morning, selling coffee and pastries. The Asian element kicks in around lunchtime and continues until 10pm. We went on a Sunday night. HX46 doesn't have a wine licence, so we arrived armed with Belfast Blonde Ale and a bottle of chilled Vermentino from the good off-licence beside the dog track.
We kicked off with crispy aromatic duck – a deep-fried descendent of the venerable Peking duck. A quarter of what must have been a very plump bird, was fork-pronged into meaty shreds with crunchy caramelised edges, the meat was sweet and tender with a subtle hint of spice. The traditional accoutrements: shiny plum treacle, skinny cucumber sticks and Chinese pancakes were well-presented. We had the makings of four stuffed rolls – the marriage of flavours and textures in each lip-smacking bite a reminder of why this unlikely but genius combination of ingredients has been a favourite of great emperors and émigré chefs for centuries.
The duck had us at "hello" – we were ready to love, forgive, and tolerate whatever came next. It was a plate of Thai prawn cakes – flattened patties, with little tips of pinkness peeping through their golden armour. They were crisp to the bite, and packed with soft juicy mashed prawn, there was no burdensome filler, we guessed they were bound with fish sauce and coconut milk, and were all the lighter and tastier for it. The dipping sauce, a cloudy salsa that was more sweet than sour, tasted homemade, while a little crop of baby rocket added leafy freshness.
We spent the interval between appetiser and main sucking bright edamame from their salted leathery pods – moreish with a swig of Belfast blonde. It gave us time to speculate on how we'd decorate the still unfinished HX46. The furniture is tastefully modern, the glass orb lights should be dimmed and tea-lights dropped on tables, bright poster prints and a cushion for the bums that get the bench would be good too. The bookcase we appreciated as an invitation to linger over your coffee during the day.
Along came the mains – with neither a chopstick, nor a noodle bowl in sight. Too trendy perhaps? Would anything other than standard crock-and-cutlery alarm the natives? Szechuan wok fried prawns bobbed in a peppery brown sauce, it had a three-chilli kick alright, but it was mostly vegetables: green beans and a bucket load of mixed peppers. Served with perfectly fluffy jasmine rice, it was tasty enough, but lacked the distinctive flavours that made our starters shine.
Thai chicken with cashew nuts and noodles was thoroughly harmless. A colourful but spineless jumble of baby corn, mangetout and scallion: the kind of ethnic dish my mother likes to eat because she views chilli and ginger with the kind of apprehension my generation reserve for typhoid and malaria.
Nevertheless, the quality of our appetisers had us plotting a return to HX46 – for a tapas style banquet of starters and maybe a bowl of Tom Yum Ghai soup.
The service is prompt and friendly, and they seem to be handing out 50pc concession cards for return diners, which along with a BYO policy, makes HX46 pretty hard to resist.
TYPICAL DISH: Noodles/Curry
RECOMMENDED: Crispy Aromatic Duck.
THE DAMAGE: €36.85 for two starters, two mains, one side. BYO pending wine licence.
ON THE STEREO: Classic pop.
AT THE TABLE: Locals.