When a restaurant opens after a whole lot of hype, expectations weigh heavy. I'd been hearing about Hang Dai for almost a year before it opened, first from restaurateur, John Farrell (he's the man behind 777, Dilllinger's, The Butcher Grill, Super Miss Sue, and Luna), who has been involved in the concept and interior design (the space is kitted out as a subway carriage), and latterly from co-owners, Will Dempsey and chef Karl Whelan.
The idea was "to shake up authentic-contemporary Chinese cuisine to create an iconic institution in Dublin's restaurant landscape; where food meets art, design and fun", according to an early press release. There was to be a particular focus on Beijing duck. Whelan has most recently headed up the kitchen at Luna, and also has stints at Chapter One and Fade St Social on his resume, all of which augured well for the food.
Of course, the idea of shaking up a cuisine and giving it a modern twist is nothing new. Farrell has done it at 777, where the contemporary Mexican food is accompanied by a bewildering selection of premium tequilas and thumping music.
777 (say 'triple seven' rather than 'seven, seven, seven' if you want to give the impression of being in the know) is about as far away from an old-school Mexican restaurant, with its endless permutations on the theme of guacamole, refried beans and enchilada/burrito, as it's possible to get.
The successful Mission Chinese ("serving Americanised oriental food" according to its website), which started in San Francisco and now also has a branch in New York, is clearly the inspiration behind Hang Dai, and if you want to eat there next time you visit the US, be prepared either to book a long time in advance, or to be grateful when you're offered a table at midnight.
Before Mission Chinese there was the Formosa in LA, established by prize fighter Jimmy Bernstein in the 1920s, and for many years a movie industry hangout thanks to its West Hollywood location, close to the Warner Brothers lot. Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner were regulars, and Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, and Lauren Bacall all ate there. The Formosa cemented its legendary status when it featured in LA Confidential. I was beguiled by its Susie Wong-style décor and alluring combination of cocktails and Kung Pao chicken. Sadly, the Formosa did not survive a modernisation of its interior design and closed last month, which should be a salutary lesson to restaurateurs everywhere: if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Anyway, Hang Dai eventually opened towards the end of last year. I went along in the first week of the new year, traditionally the deadest of dead weeks for restaurants, and the only booking that I could get, aside from a very early one, was at 9.30pm on Thursday evening.
I'd heard that the music was loud, so I brought along my 20-something daughter so she could assure me that it wasn't and tell me not to be curmudgeonly. When you book online, you're told that parties of two will be seated at the bar, and that tables are reserved for parties of four or more; we were shown to a pair of stools at the far corner of the bar, which turned out to be both an excellent vantage point and a good position from which to be able to chat to the bartender and have her talk us through the cocktail options. Although there is an efficient and moderately priced wine list, I'd recommend drinking either beer or cocktails. We particularly enjoyed the Hang Dai Sour and Rum and Plum.
As Hang Dai is all about the duck, we pre-ordered a half duck (€40) when prompted during the booking process. The Skeaghanore duck comes as three courses: a broth with Chinese pickles, the leg roast on the bone, "drenched in Cantonese-style soy sauce and duck juice", and "Beijing-style thinly sliced duck with crisp skin, served with pancakes, cucumber and cherry hoi sin". Of the three, the third was by far the best, the tender, flavoursome duck presented fine-dining style and pink, rather than in the shredded, long-cooked style customarily associated with the dish. The skin could have been crisper though.
We found the leg tough, and the soy sauce far too salty; the broth was fine. I'd have preferred not to have had half a duck's head on the plate.
Where the food really shone for us was with the other dishes. Fried prawn toast with yuzu mayo should really not feature on any sensible January eating plan, but what the hell? It's too good to pass by. Oysters topped with chilli, soy, lime, coriander and prickly oil, whatever that is, are briny and vibrant, and pork dumplings with sweet soy, just perfect.
Dry fried green beans with chilli and minced pork are spicy and sensational, and may just have been our favourite dish of the night. We vowed to return for the Typhoon Shelter soft shell crab which had sold out, and a half-dozen other dishes that are still winking at me from the online menu.
Hang Dai does not offer dessert.
Our bill for two, including two cocktails each, came to €110 before service. Our waitress offered to take the uneaten duck leg off the bill, and comped us two additional cocktails when we said that was unnecessary.
8/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
The unmissable prawn toast is just €6, and those green beans are a tenner. If you just want to see what Hang Dai is like, share four small plates and two cocktails and it'll cost €50 for two.
ON A BLOW OUT
Typhoon Shelter crab to start, followed by main courses of steamed sea bass and beef hot pot, with a couple of sides, would come to around €100 for two before drinks.
THE HIGH POINT
Lip-smacking Chinese food presented in an exciting space that's something new for Dublin and lots of fun.
THE LOW POINT
The duck leg element of the three-course duck menu.