Jonathan Gold, the much-loved restaurant critic of the LA Times who died last year, was the first person who came to mind after my visit to Bowls by Kwanghi Chan last week. Gold was the first restaurant critic to win a Pulitzer; his column Counter Intelligence focused on "hole-in-the-wall joints, street food, mom-and-pop shops and ethnic restaurants" and he was famous for visiting places as many as eight times before he wrote about them. (If you'd like to know more, watch Laura Gabbert's 2015 documentary, City of Gold.)
Kwanghi Chan is a popular chef from Donegal whom you'll know from his frequent television appearances and the popular Chan Chan range of condiments that includes a spice bag mix that has attained cult status. His new casual restaurant is located at the Parnell Street end of Marlborough Street and opened late last year. It's clearly intended to be more accessible than some of the Asian restaurants in the area which can be intimidating for newbies who find it hard to make head or tail of the menus, and fret that they are missing out on the really good stuff that they see being devoured at other tables.
Kwanghi's background includes stints at the Michelin-starred Chapter One and Cliff House restaurants, and he's regarded as a chef of skill and integrity. I'd been hearing good reports about his new venture, which I assume is intended to be the first of many. But, as luck would have it, we turned up on a day when Kwanghi was not on the premises, and couldn't help feeling that the experience that we had was sub-par.
For a first-time visitor it's not immediately clear how to order. Above the counter are two blackboards listing 'signature' and 'build your own' bowls, but no one directs us towards the printed menus which offer greater choice. I've heard tell of dumplings (and never pass up the opportunity for a good dumpling) so ask for those, and for kimchi, as well as the beef brisket and roast aubergine bowls.
The two super-size Big Green Egg barbecues and bags of proper charcoal in the open kitchen augur well for the flavour of what we are about to eat. The aubergine is described as being roasted over charcoal and served with oyster sauce, rice or noodles, pickled white radish, fermented bean-curd greens, pickled daikon, miso street sauce, black garlic and pickled broccoli. It sounds terrific - we opt for egg noodles - but the aubergine is a sludgy, watery mess that tastes of little. And while there is some interest in the accompaniments, the broth lacks flavour and the broccoli is disconcertingly fridge-cold.
The 'charred Hong Kong 5 spice pulled beef brisket' that reads so well is similarly bland and disappointing. There's an awful lot of rice at the bottom of the bowl, but some interest in the dressed baby kale, purple shiso pickled vegetables, scallion, coriander and roasted miso sweetcorn strewn across the top.
Pot-sticker dumplings are a classic dim sum dish, meat-filled rounds of wheat pasta crimped along the top and steam-fried side-by-side so that they stick together in a row. The idea is that the exterior is tacky and the bottom crunchy, with a juicy filling. Here the chicken and chive version is heavy, solid, and lacking in flavour. A side of kimchi is fine, but we'd have preferred more crunch and pungency.
By way of dessert, there are Macau-style pasteis de nata tarts that are rather deeper and more solid than the Portuguese version you'll find in Lisbon, but pleasant nonetheless.
The bill for lunch for two, with sparkling water, comes to €44.05.
On the evidence of our single visit, but bearing in mind reports of much better experiences, what is lacking at Bowls right now is rigour. In the early days of a restaurant, the person behind the vision needs to be there day-in, day-out, making sure that the execution is up to scratch. I don't have any doubt that Bowls can become consistently excellent if this happens.
ON A BUDGET
A small 'build your own bowl' costs €8.
ON A BLOW OUT
The most expensive item on the menu is the beef brisket 'signature' bowl. Add in sides, drinks and a couple of custard tarts and the bill for two could reach €50.
THE HIGH POINT
The ideas are good, and the menu reads well.
THE LOW POINT
We visited Bowls on Kwanghi Chan's day off and couldn't help feeling that the magic was missing.