For the last few decades, getting ‘a Chinese’ was a saying that the vast majority of Irish people would be familiar with.
In many parts of the country, the food from the local Chinese is still thought of as a bit of a delicacy and something foreign. The fact that it could involve dishes like omelette and chips or a spice bag, which are about as far removed from Chinese cooking as Donald Trump is from reality, has never really bothered us.
There are some exceptions (Sichuan in Sandyford and the recent arrivals around Parnell Street, for example) but, for the most part, Chinese food in Ireland is brutal and too often served in plastic containers made up of 90% raw sliced onions in sticky gloopy sauce.
So, when Hang Dai hit the Dublin restaurant scene with a bang in November, it’s safe to say that it didn’t fit the mould.
The hype was immediate, given the look of the place and the fit out that was to be expected. Half nightclub, half subway carriage with an open kitchen and banging tunes playing through a super high-end sound system.
Throw in fairy lights, disco balls, whole ducks hanging from the walls and hip staff and you’re faced with sensory overload.
I walked in squinting like a prisoner of war seeing the light of day for the first time in years. My brain just didn’t know how to process it all or where to look next.
The place has been written about by every food critic, blogger and outlet in the country. Word of mouth has also spread. That’s great for business and the place was packed in January but there is one downside to such blanket coverage.
When The Sunday Business Post and the Irish Times call you the “Coolest New Eatery In Dublin“, it attracts a certain crowd.
As I sat at the bar and looked around, there wasn’t a person under 40. The place was full of grey-haired couples and groups of businessmen in suits. Nothing wrong with that but many of these people looked clearly uncomfortable in their surroundings and clearly aren’t the target market for somewhere like Hang Dai.
The edginess will come here when the older crowd have moved off to the next ‘cool’ place and the twenty somethings (I can’t bring myself to use the M word) are drinking shots of gin on a rollover Sunday when the DJs are cranking the tunes on the decks.
The food is good. As Apple predictive text would say “really ducking good”. The chefs are well trained and the owners researched the place extensively in China over the last couple of years.
My duck dumplings were decent but the Tiger prawns were an absolute triumph of a dish. The prices are mostly reasonable, with the vast majority of dishes being between €10 and €20. The bill could ramp up drastically if you dig into their awesome cocktail menu and push the boat out but the beauty of this place is that there is something for everybody.
Hang Dai is exactly like my favourite restaurant in Dublin…777. The similarities abound, despite the different cuisines at their core. What I love about 777 is that it has that rawness. Couples drinking Margaritas who clearly only hooked up for the first time last night and people coming off three-day benders.
The place has the energy of a Nirvana gig and an attitude that says “we are the best at what we do so if you don’t like it, fuck off to a high-end French brasserie”.
I firmly believe Hang Dai will get to that level and become one of the most enjoyable restaurant experiences in Dublin.
At the moment, it reminds me of an amazing new pair of jeans. In a year or two, they’ll be the best pair of jeans you ever owned. Worn in. Comfy. You couldn’t imagine living without them. At the moment though, the jeans are like Hang Dai. Too new, too shiny and needs wearing in.
Truly great restaurants are not made in the first three months. They take time. Long after the initial reviews and the curious customers driving in from the suburbs in their Volvos are gone, Hang Dai will shine.