Let’s be honest, here in Ireland Chinese food often gets a bad rap. Every town in Ireland has at least one outlet which isn’t necessarily doing the cuisine’s reputation any favours, yet we return time and time again for our fix of what is seen as a guilty pleasure – saccharine sauces and greasy battered balls abound.
The tide, thankfully, is turning with chefs like Kwanghi Chan hoping to prove there is more to Chinese than sweet and sour with his Slaint-Chi initiative. Luna’s Karl Whelan is due to open Hang Dai imminently having traveled across Asia to research the cuisine and recreate it authentically.
With this eagerness to embrace traditionally prepared dishes and having heard whispers about great Dim Sum and dishes usually reserved for the ‘Real Chinese’ menu reflecting the true cuisine the Chinese population really eat, we headed to beautiful Clontarf in search of a real taste of China. Yang’s of Clontarf, with a sea front location was our beautiful stop post work on a Thursday.
Greeted by proprietor Gillian, we could not have been made to feel more welcome, like guests in her own home, she was genuinely pleased to see us. In-keeping with the traditional decor you would expect from a Chinese restaurant, the dining areas were well appointed and spread out over many levels. Even at 6pm, Yang’s was already quite full, with tables in every nook and cranny filled and the hum of happy diners enjoying their evening. Our spacious round table was the perfect spot for an evening of sharing, my favourite way to eat.
Keen to get a good taste of everything Yang’s has to offer, we trusted Gillian to choose the dishes that best reflect what her chef, from Hong Kong originally, could do. Naturally, the menu includes Westernised dishes that we in Ireland expect to be able to order in a Chinese restaurant, favourites that can be extremely comforting, but equally there was a good selection of sophisticated, more traditional Cantonese dishes. Notably, MSG is off the menu in Yang’s, which is always good to see, as it highlights the commitment to extracting flavour from high quality ingredients.
While we felt a bottle of Verdejo would be well matched in its acidity to the various dishes which lay ahead, a couple of us opted for traditionally Chinese green tea as we were driving. We happily kept pace with the Chinese tradition of ‘yum cha’ – drink tea, as the Chinese do, even more than the Irish! Jasmine tea we would discover, surprisingly, made for a beautiful accompaniment to the array of flavours Gillian had in store for us.
What was to come was quite the banquet, which kicked off with traditional Cantonese Dim Sum to gently ease us in. Steamed Prawn Dumplings, or Ha Gow lacked the overdone stodginess so many dim sum suffer from, light and delicate, expertly steamed with their rice paper casing retaining a bit of bite. A delicate, well seasoned ground prawn filling was well matched with soy dressing spiked with chilli, garlic and spring onion. These were delicious morsels and Yang’s dim sum offering was spot on.
Next up was one of my favourite comfort dishes, Duck Spring Rolls, but not as we so often find them. Think think succulent pulled duck encased in a super crisp wonton wrapper. What I loved most about this dish was the fact that there was no bean sprout filler or bulking ingredient, these were bulging, generously filled with melting, sweet and moist duck.
A trio of starters was yet to come and my eyes immediately lit up to see cubes of roasted Pork Belly Hong Shao Rou- which is prepared in the traditional Hong Kong style which involves a two day preservation process and a slow simmer. These were audibly crunchy on top but soft and sweet beneath, drizzled with sticky hoi sin sauce, reduced with duck cooking juices. I may have eaten more than the two I was presented with. When done right, no one does pork as well as the Chinese and looking back, this was the standout dish of the evening, authentic and perfectly executed.
I am not overly dexterous but was encouraged to give chopsticks a go, which led to me eventually stabbing an innocent piece of Salt Fried Tofu with one, worn out from failure. I don’t regret it. These were little pops of deeply saline flavour which they call Chinese cheese – anyone worried about tasteless tofu can leave their fear at the door with this dish. Kataifi pastry coated Crispy Prawns rounded out the trio, the shredded coating is a lovely alternative to filo pastry, crisp as can be. The prawns inside were plump, juicy and well cooked, a real crowd pleaser at our table.
Black Pepper Beef had a punchy black pepper coating, a stir-fried dish served by Yang’s in a pastry nest. A quick toss in a screaming hot wok meant the vegetables retained their crunch and the quality of the Irish sirloin beef was evident, sourced locally from O’Mahoney’s meats. This dish was extremely peppery, a different kind of heat to the usual chilli spicing but the tender beef stood up well to this full bodied flavour.
Salt and Pepper Sea Bass arrived whole, which always brings abundance to mind. The whole fish, including the head is deep fried and I am told there are fights over the eyes traditionally, unsurprisingly not the case tonight. As keen as we were to have an authentic evening, I may leave the eye gouging to the experts! Perfectly soft bass was lip-smackingly savoury with spring onion and chopped chilli, this was a bountiful dish made to be shared and enjoyed. Yang’s sources it’s fish from Kish Fish, so you know the quality is there and it is fantastic to hear that local suppliers are being utilised.
A Western favourite, Satay Chicken came enrobed in a thickly rich peanut sauce. The Chinese cooking technique of ‘velveting’, coating meat in egg white, cornflour and rice wine before cooking, can lend a strange texture to chicken but this was softly succulent. I would imagine this was achieved by cooking the chicken gently in the sauce, which added another layer of flavour to the dish.
Duck stir fry with mange tout and bean sprout, again pulled and melting soft, duck is fried in traditional Chinese style so rendered fat added a depth of delicious richness to the dish as a whole. A simple but enjoyable side dish of Stir-Fried Pak Choi was tender crisp, with no sugar added, just traditional garlic and soy and a quick trip to the wok. Yan choo fried rice, traditionally fried with char siu pork, egg and shrimp was a flavourful side dish reflective of how the Chinese really eat their rice.
Another staple on Irish menus, Crispy Chicken in Chilli Sauce was Yangs’ nod to the stereotypical sweet and sour chicken, which I will admit I enjoy from time to time! This version was quite sweet but the thin tempura style batter was well crisped and hadn’t gone limp in the sticky coating of sauce. If sweet and sour is your go to, this will keep you more than happy.
Having shared every dish with chopsticks flying and the Lazy Susan doing many a spin, hours went by without us noticing – the sign of a good night. Having sampled a large chunk of the extensive offering we were all that little bit too stuffed to contemplate dessert, which Chinese restaurants are not typically known for in any case. Brief thought was given to sharing a traditional Banana Fritter, but we settled on another pot of Jasmine tea to finish.
Chinese restaurants perhaps aren’t known for their hospitality but service delivered by the wonderful Gillian and her team was beyond warm yet unobtrusive, which is a major plus. Chinese eateries, as I said, sometimes get a hard time but we all agreed, Yang’s is a venue for everyone, so park any preconception at the door. Those wanting their comfort zone of sweet and sour and those looking to get a bit adventurous by exploring what Cantonese cuisine has to offer will all come away smiling and happily full, as we did. I am pleased to say that the Chinese whispers about how good Yang’s is proved to be true.
436 Clontarf Road
T: (01) 833 4400
REVIEW BY DARINA COFFEY
Growing up with the name Darina, I was constantly asked if I could cook like my namesake. With that(and greed) as the ultimate motivator, I realised that baked goods make excellent bribes and an obsession was born! With bachelor’s and master’s degrees in law I undertook a PhD, but a preference for cookbooks to textbooks persisted. As a (self-confessed!) demon in the kitchen, I am the only person to have contested both Masterchef and the Great Irish Bake off, fuelling my desire to focus on food in a serious way. Working with TheTaste allows me to satisfy this craving and marries my food fascination with my love of writing and ranting.Darina Coffey Darina Coffey