Funny how things work out.
Back in 2013, when he was putting the whumpf! into the food that made Fade Street Social the hottest ticket in town, Karl Whelan told The Irish Times that, whenever he got his own name over the door, it would be “a barbecue and blues joint”, a reflection of the fact that he is a major music head, and loves the heritage cooking of the American South.
Between 2013, and today, Mr Whelan moved on to Luna, where he put the whumpf! into the food that made John Farrell’s restaurant the talk of 2015.
In 2016, he moved on to his own place and, with his business partner Will Dempsey, they got the doors of Hang Dai open in November 2016.
It’s not the “barbecue and blues” place Mr Whelan envisaged. Instead, it is the most radical Oriental restaurant Ireland has ever seen.
And, once more, Mr Whelan’s cooking is the talk of the town. Hang Dai is deadly.
Mr Whelan and Mr Dempsey commissioned the design company, Twisted Image, to give them a room that was “Blade Runner, Chinese style.” What they’ve gotten is something we have never seen before in Ireland: Hang Dai is, in a word, lurid.
The colours are garish – super-saturated pinks and purples, ghoulish greens, hot reds, deep blacks. It’s phantasmagoric, in the best possible way, the restaurant room as film set in a Ridley Scott sci-fi thriller, scripted by Lucky Peach.
But the real thrills, as one would expect of a chef with Mr Whelan’s pedigree, are on the plate, and in the glass. The HD martini, with Tanqueray, apple sweet and sour and Vermouth, is the best cocktail I have drank in years.
And everything we ate was just as good as the HD.
Take, for instance, Mr Whelan’s version of aubergine in fish fragrance sauce. This is one of the classic dishes of Sichuan cuisine and is “one of the most sensuous dishes in any cuisine” wrote the late Yan-Kit So.
It exists in many variations and, when cooked correctly, in the words of the Sichuanese cookery expert Fuchsia Dunlop, it should make you “sigh with delight.”
Mr Whelan’s version is swoonsome. Previous Irish governments would have banned this dish on the grounds of its sheer brazen sensuality. Eat this, and you won’t be able to get it out of your head.
But just as sensual is the Ma Po tofu, which has a texture of silky dissoluteness, and just as sensual is the wrapper that drapes itself around the pork dumplings, and just as sensual is the duck broth that is the first part of their trilogy of wood-fired oven duck dishes, made with the Hickey family’s Skeaghanore duck, reared in west Cork.
The Hang Dai duck dishes are the centrepiece of the menu, with the broth preceeding the chopped duck leg soused in soy sauce, and finishing with the breast meat and skin sliced and served with with pancakes, cucumber and cherry hoi sin.
Only one dish slipped from this stellar standard, as we found the soft shell crab with lemon mayo to have too much crumb and too little crab.
If the room is like nothing we have ever seen before, the sound system is like nothing we have ever heard before in an Irish restaurant. They play the music loud, yet you can hear your guest as clearly as if you were on top of a mountain. The system is analogue, and was built in West Cork by Toby Hatchett. Mr Hatchett is going to be very busy in 2017.
Mr Whelan and Mr Dempsey have created something really special in Hang Dai. The restaurant has created the sort of buzz that accompanied Danny Bowien’s Mission Chinese when it first opened in New York, when people would queue for hours to get a table.
It’s likely you will have to wait to get a table in Hang Dai. It’s worth it.
Hang Dai, 20 Camden Street, Dublin 2 01 545 8888 eat@hangDaiChinese.com Tue-Sat 5pm-late