Food and Drink: Treasures from the East
Hilan 45 Capel Street, Dublin, 1 (01-874-8677) *****
Dining at my new favourite Asian eatery was like a culinary treasure hunt in deliciously unfamiliar terrain. The first clues came weeks before, with word of 'that Korean place at the far end of Capel Street' which serves lesser-explored culinary curiosities such as jellyfish.
That's the kind of information I treat as a personal challenge. It was game on long before I heard that they serve chilli-fried green beans. This happens to be my endorphin-booster of choice, usually enjoyed at my hitherto favourite Chinese restaurant, M&L Szechuan off O'Connell Street.
The stakes had just been raised. Some Googling narrowed our target down to either Hilan or its neighbour, Arisu. On a hunch, I booked the former. It was heaving on arrival, in sorry contrast to Arisu's desolation. This must be the place.
They had given away our table (we were late, they were busy) but we persevered. Soon enough we were sat under a framed black and white Manhattan skyline, within which I could imagine a warren of similar no-frills dining rooms. This one was filled with mostly Asian faces pouring over encyclopedic menus or peering over the glow of table-top barbecues.
In the decade that Hilan has been a front-runner in Dublin's home-grown Chinatown, it has extended its remit to include all manner of Chinese dishes alongside its house specialities of Korean barbecue, hotpots, soups and casseroles. Today, the menu is so long that by the time you get to the end of its mind-boggling meanderings you need to take a good long draught of refreshing Tsingtao beer and start all over again at the beginning.
We knew we wanted to avoid the more ubiquitous offerings – the no-doubt-delicious dumplings and noodles and stir-fries – and to hunt out the finest authentic treasures. And we knew we were ordering 'sautéed crispy green beans with pork mince and crispy chilli'. And jellyfish, obviously. But did we want it with celery or Chinese leaves? Or served cold with cucumber? Or would we prove our mettle with 'cold jellyfish head with soy sauce'? Other challenges beckoned, some more delicious sounding than others. Razor clams steamed with garlic or whelk with Korean-style sauce. Five-colour jelly noodle with pork or preserved egg with red chilli and parsley. Something called 'sand bowl pork fat and tofu', and something else called 'red jujube' served with stewed pork.
Sizzling dishes included frogs legs, spicy chilli octopus or beef with black pepper sauce and apple. Pork tripe came with beef in chilli sauce, or with crispy fried pork intestine. We could dine on anything from Korean steamed steak to spicy pork organ to barbecued gizzard to chrysanthemum with oyster sauce.
In the end we made like the lady in When Harry Met Sally. Pointing at a neighbouring tableful who were having a great time of it altogether, we instructed that 'we'll have what they're having'. And some green beans and jellyfish on the side. Our choice turned out to be a Korean hotpot set meal for two. There were two heated baths of broth: one delicate and fragrant, one rich and heavily spiced with dried chillies and Szechuan peppers. There were all sorts of goodies to plunge in and ladle out before dipping into a sort of sesame-heavy satay sauce. Dried 'silk noodles' unfurled into something name-worthy, green prawns blushed pink and opaque rings of squid softened their bite. There were blocks of soft tofu and slices of crunchy Chinese cabbage and wafer-thin tubes of raw, just-defrosted lamb and beef.
There was enough food to feed us twice over, but it was a delicious, leisurely way to eat. The translucent amber strips of jellyfish were surprisingly unjelly-like. It came cold with garlicky Asian cucumber instead of hot with Chinese leaves as we had ordered, and wasn't altogether unpleasant.
The beans were magnificent, smothered in black beans and garlic as well as fire-cracker dried chillies and minced pork, a less purist take than M&L's but no less moreish.
Dining at Hilan is a whole lot of fun. With the right sense of adventure and some good navigation skills, you could eat here every week for several years and still hunt out some new treasure to try.
Why go? To test your culinary courage
What to order? Whatever your neighbours are having
Who to bring? Your cinema date or a birthday party (allegedly there's karaoke on offer)
How much? €53 gets enough food for three or four, before beers (€4) and service