There are snowflakes in the window of Old Town on Dublin’s Capel Street. They are the dangly light kind rather than the human variety. But premature snowflakes are forgivable when a place smells this tasty. Inside the bare wooden tables are busy. Asian diners, most of them young, one boy with his face buried happily in a book, are sipping Cokes from cans with straws and chatting. You get the feeling this is a regulars kind of place. Staff and customers seem to know each other well.
I heard about Old Town from a friend of a friend who used to live in Beijing. It was, she said, one of two places in Dublin where she could eat the kind of Chinese food she discovered in Beijing. Inside it’s a bright workaday finish, a dark laminate floor which clatters loudly any time something is dropped. The lighting is stark. Paper lanterns spell out the name of the place from the ceiling and the chairs are glazed in a high shine varnish the colour of freshly fallen conkers. No hipster tropes have been harmed in the making of this restaurant.
The menu is an epic saga printed on black laminated pages in a leather-bound book and turning from English without pictures to a mixture of English and Cantonese with pictures. There are chef’s recommendations, a listing in the vegetable dishes section of lentils with pork mince, and another of “fried corns with pine nuts,” which if it hasn’t been lost in translation definitely takes nose to tail eating to its ultimate level.
The jellyfish element looks like a tangle of sweetly fried strips of onion and is squeaky and chewy
We are suffering from that very first-world complaint of what my friend describes as “too much choice,” a bout of repetitive strain injury coming on from flipping the pages back and forth. We end up ordering so much that they move us to a table for four. The first plate in a flurry of food to arrive is the dish I expect to like the least. A cold salad of jellyfish and cucumber? One to taste, slide quietly to one side and tell my kids about later. But it’s great.
The jellyfish element looks like a tangle of sweetly fried strips of onion and is squeaky and chewy, like rubbery glass noodles. The cucumber is sliced into crunchy spears and the whole plate is slathered in a chilli and vinegar sauce that has just the right amount of heat and tang.
There are five fat pork dumplings in a steamer, their pastry soft, thick and good, swirled in the jellyfish sauce. Paul gets Pork Yuk Sung, pork mince served on crispy fried noodles. It comes with a half head of freshly washed iceberg lettuce to be used to scoop the meat like posh canapé baby gem boats. There’s a whole seabass served head on in a stainless steel bath where it’s still bubbling and blipping, with the heat from a burner underneath.
The fish is topped with a blizzard of mild chillis, peppercorns and a light broth. There are wedges of fresh ginger so fiery they feel like the food version of a flu jab, and clumps of thready mushrooms so fine they look at first glance like a pile of fish bones. My crispy duck with salted egg yolk has been coated in egg batter and fried with seams of yellow yolk cooked into the meat. It’s on the overcooked side so it has lost that lovely balance between crispy skin and luscious slightly rare meat, but it’s tasty in a gnarly deep-fried way. Fried aubergine with soy is tooth-achingly sweet and tastes weirdly like fish and chip shop batter.
Food can be a passport to someone else’s bubble to try the jellyfish or just some plain egg fried rice
The dessert card looks like a range of supermarket freezer varieties and the pineapple and banana fritters aren’t on so we finish with a generous pot of jasmine tea served in lovely handle-less cups.
We are the last people here and there is a lot of floor cleaning, black sack carrying and general housekeeping before the staff settle down to eat at the back of the restaurant.
As we increasingly seal ourselves in our own bubbles, food can be a passport to someone else’s bubble to try the jellyfish or just some plain egg fried rice. Old Town is a welcoming bubble. It feels like a secret taste of home for people who love a broader palate of Chinese food.