Tabletalk: Stuck in a rut
The recent Chinese New Year celebrations got our critic thinking long and hard about the type of 'Chinese' food served in many restaurants in Ireland - and not in a positive way
I get this great longing every now and again for good Chinese food, but frankly, good Chinese restaurants, in general, have become very thin on the ground - unless you go to the Parnell Street area, which is now regarded as Dublin's Chinatown, and there are a few ropey ones there, too!
For many of us, our first experience of 'exotic' food was Chinese, of the sweet-and-sour chicken variety, in gloopy sauces with liberal applications of MSG. Today, there is still a whole raft of these lavishly decorated, old-fashioned Chinese restaurants that haven't realised that it is no longer good enough to slosh out 'Chinese food for Europeans'.
People are more widely travelled, and the whole food scene here has changed, with small eateries opening all over the place, doing great Asian food, and gradually putting these blasts-from-the-past out of business.
The real 'rot' in the old-style Chinese-restaurant industry began with the sudden deluge of Thai food some years ago. Much of that, it has to be said, was slosh too, but there are some good ones, and it also opened people's eyes to other tastes, styles and influences.
Many of the Chinese restaurants tried to capture some of that Thai market, but they still didn't move with the times, which is a pity, because good Chinese food is superb. I wrote about this a few years ago, drawing the comparison with Indian cuisine, which had raised its game considerably to meet the challenge of people's expectations of modern food.
What's needed here is a visit from Ching-He Huang, who, through her Restaurant Redemption TV show, has been changing the face of the US's Chinese restaurants.
Without using any Gordon Ramsay-ish F-words, Ching's glacial stare and no-nonsense attitude has made many of the time-warped older Chinese restaurateurs ditch the dated decor, and the 'this is what Americans like'-style slosh, replacing it with healthy, modern Chinese food.
We visited the Victoria Asian Cuisine restaurant in Monkstown recently and, while the service was charming and courteous, the food was very disappointing. The floor-to-ceiling, black-lacquered wall-panelling, considered luxurious when installed some 20-odd years ago, was oppressive and heavy - particularly when accompanied by funereal background music and the mere five diners present over the course of our visit.
Ordering from a two-course Special Set Dinner at €25, and the four-course Early Bird at €20, I chose crispy aromatic duck, followed by king prawns with 'hot garlic', while Brendan chose chicken satay followed by sweet-and-sour pork.
I couldn't understand the logic of presenting the pancakes for the aromatic duck in their little steamer basket - which was keeping them warm and moist - if you're expected to put them on a stone-cold plate.
That matter resolved, I assembled the pancakes of shredded, dry-as-dust duck - it was so fine that some parts were just crumbs - with cucumber and spring onion. Brendan ate his bog-standard chicken skewers and sweet-and-sour pork without any particular joy.
Expecting some nice, unfettered prawns with perhaps chilli and garlic, I lost the will to live when I was faced with a big dish of heavy, gloopy brown sauce of the 'find the prawn' variety. Sporting all sorts of unbilled and unwanted slimy peppers and onions, it was accompanied by a big portion of flaccid noodles.
It was bad takeaway style. If I had ordered it at home, at half the price, I might have been disappointed, but got over it, but in a restaurant you expect a higher level of cooking.
The 'early birder' got ice-cream, and they did bring us a complimentary fruit plate.
With a bottle of Torres Mas Rabell (€23) and service, our bill came to €75.
Frankly, the best dish on the table was an unused side plate!
Victoria Asian Cuisine,
5A The Crescent, Monkstown, Co Dublin.
Tel: (01) 230-1212
Three to try: Eastern eats
35 O'Connell Street, Limerick.
Tel: (061) 313-725
Bamboo, cherry blossom, red lanterns and light-wood panels evoke the Land of the Rising Sun in Limerick city. The extensive menu includes sushi, sashimi, tempura, teppan teriyaki, noodles and more
Price: €3.50 - €16.80
Try: Unagi Special - grilled eel, cucumber and tobbiko (flying-fish roe), €13.90
Wine: From €18 - plus Japanese beers and sake
15-17 Ballsbridge Terrace, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4.
Tel: (01) 660-7415
Style: A long-standing, modern Chinese restaurant doing Cantonese, Szechuan, Peking and Thai cuisine. The menu includes roast duck with prawn stuffing, black sole on the bone, king-prawn curry, and scallops
Price: €5.50-€28. Two-course weekday business lunch with coffee, €14.50
Try: Shredded beef with salt and chilli jumbo prawn, €25
Wine: From €23
6-7 Carey's Lane, Cork.
Tel: (021) 427-2388
Style: Aroi's Asian street food was such a success when it opened in Limerick that it expanded to Cork, where it is going down a storm. Great food and good value
Try: Yellow fish curry - cod, salmon, calamari, prawns, cherry tomatoes, baby corn and beans, €10
Wine: From €19.50