I’m sitting in a fake subway booth that has been inspired by Hong Kong, and has the feel of the set of Blade Runner. The tiny morsel of food in my mouth has left me speechless. It’s the texture of grainy fudge and its taste is overpoweringly intense. Time seems to slow down as my system tries to make sense of this overwhelming experience. I’m at Hang Dai on Camden Street and I’ve just eaten duck brain for the first time.
The duck brain arrived at our table as part of the three-course duck sharing experience at Hang Dai. It’s discreetly hidden away in the head of a wood-fired oven roasted duck, a delicacy for the brave of palate.
Hang Dai, which means brothers or like-minded partners, was named as a reflection of the co-owners friendship. Chef Karl Whelan and DJ Will Dempsey have been friends since their school days. This is Whelan’s first role as chef/owner but he’s cooked at restaurants such as Luna and Chapter One, the former winning Best Restaurant in Ireland at the Irish Restaurant Awards 2016 while the kitchen was under his steerage.
“I want to tour around the different techniques and regions of Chinese cooking from the confines of the kitchen,” Whelan tells me. At the moment, they’re focusing on Cantonese, Beijing and Sichuan dishes, creating a contemporary take on a take-away, complete with a golden waving maneki-neko at the front door, the Japanese lucky cat figurine popular in China.
Before bringing this tour of flavours to Camden Street, Dempsey and Whelan undertook an actual tour of Beijing, Chengdu and Hong Kong this time last year. Also on the trip was restaurateur John Farrell, who co-designed the interior of Hang Dai. Their half duck (€40) and whole duck (€80) is a reflection of those travels, and Whelan has created a hybrid of a Cantonese and Beijing styles of preparation of duck. Their ducks are sourced from Skeaghanore in Ballydehob in West Cork, hand-reared by Eugene and Helena Hickey, and they’re roasted over an applewood-fired oven. The Cantonese influence is their choice of stuffing and marinade, made at Hang Dai with salt, five spices, hoisin, coriander, spring onion and ginger, while the wood-fired oven method is a Beijing staple.
The duck arrives in three parts. First, there’s a medicinal-tasting Beijing duck broth paired with Sichuan pickles. We’re not sure about this course, and it’s the only misjudgement of the night. I love the broth but my dinner dates aren’t into its fatty tones, whereas I find the pickles to be too forceful in flavour. The duck experience is swiftly back on track with the arrival of a succulent, singular duck leg, roasted and chopped on the bone, drizzled in a sticky Cantonese-style sauce. The best part for me is the Beijing-style thinly sliced duck served with pancakes, cucumber and cherry hoisin, such a class dish done superbly well.
The duck has to be pre-ordered, and we had a half duck between four people, to give us room to order a whole load of sides, which is where we see the creativity of the kitchen in full flow. We order a plate of the exploding prawns (€18), which are a half dozen properly fat prawns, heads and tails intact, coated in a sticky, fermented chilli sauce, surrounded by some lightly steamed pak choi. The prawns burst with flavour. An absolute stand-out is the miso-lacquered aubergine with black garlic (€7), an umami-triggering delight that serves the much-maligned aubergine very well.
Crispy battered and deep-fried Typhoon shelter soft shell crab (€14) arrive with a lemon mayo dipping sauce, and a side of dry fried green beans with minced pork (€10) are almost as good as the green beans in M&L Chinese just off O’Connell Street, and that’s a big compliment. Before all that, we start with the most delicious prawn toast (€6) I’ve ever had. In fact, it’s the only delicious prawn toast I’ve ever had. There are hunks of real prawn meat sandwiched between oily slices of thin, crispy bread topped in sesame seeds, sliced into triangles and perfect for dipping into an accompanying yuzu mayo. To me, this prawn toast sums up what Hang Dai is about. It’s take-away comfort food done by an award-winning chef who has worked in Michelin starred kitchens without losing his healthy sense of humour.
“Chinese take-away food has massive potential,” Whelan says. “A chicken ball could be something spectacular. We’ll definitely do something that resembles a spice bag in the near future.” Dublin’s idea of Chinese food may never be the same. And that’s a good thing.
The food comes when it’s ready and it’s all about sharing, family style. It’s playful, and any culinary or regional rules seem to have been thrown out the window, waved goodbye by that Chinese lucky cat. The four of us huddled into our faux-subway booth eat until we’re full and, along with a bottle of Tempranillo (€31), our bill comes to €154.50.
Hang Dai Sounds
While project managing Hang Dai from inception to build, Dempsey’s background in DJing and working with Choice Cuts meant that the soundsystem was always going to get the same careful attention as the food. “I noticed there was much more warmth and clarity in analogue sound-systems,” Dempsey tells me, “which I thought would work really well in a cocktail bar and restaurant where we could crank up the volume without the sound being obtrusive and harsh.” All advice pointed to Hang Dai building their own sound system, and Dempsey teamed up with Toby Hatchett of Hatchett Furniture and Sound and Abe Scheele, sound designer of Scheele Sound, and together they built the sound system for Hang Dai to spec, building the DJ booth into the foundation of the building and having all the surfaces of the room acoustically treated. Hang Dai is a restaurant from 5pm to 10.30pm and a disco bar til late. John Mahon from The Locals has been brought in to programme local and international DJs for the coming months.
Hang Dai Chinese
20 Camden Street, Dublin 2
Words: Aoife McElwain
Photos: Killian Broderick