It’s Chinese New Year on Sunday, the start of the Year of the Rabbit. I had planned to visit a traditional Chinese restaurant on Parnell Street in Dublin with a Chinese friend to get a sense of how to order (tip one: go with a gang, as dishes can be quite large), but as a smart new Chinese restaurant had opened at the end of December, we changed our plans and instead headed to Stephen Street Lower, on the other side of the Liffey.
Nan is owned by Ryon Wen and Ian Keegan, the duo behind Little Dumpling, next door, and Hakkahan, along the river a bit in Stoneybatter. Whereas the focus there is Szechuan cuisine, here it is the more delicately flavoured, lesser-known Huaiyang cuisine, from Jiangsu province, in southern China.
My dining pal is from northern China and unfamiliar with the food of this region. The food is spicier in the north, he tells me, to keep you warm; the cuisine becomes mellower as you move farther south. There are, however, some dishes that you will always find on a Chinese menu, cooked in the particular style of the region, and the menu at Nan is broken into these sections. He is in charge, ordering dumplings (steamed and fried), a cold appetiser, soup, fish, and fried rice. We hold off on anything from the meat section, deciding to see the size of the dishes and work through them first.
We ask for our dishes to come in stages, which is not properly understood at first but then rectified with charm. A bottle of Segredos de Sao Miguel (€29), a Portuguese white, sees us through the meal.
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Three pork soup dumplings, xiao long bao (€10), arrive; they are crimped, opaque white packages filled with tasty minced pork and a stream of soup, some of which we allow to release into our bowl before eating with chopsticks. The fried dumplings (€11) are perhaps a little less interesting, the prawn inside being fairly dense and lacking in flavour.
Cold poached chicken, kou shui ji (€12), is not something I would have ordered on my own, but my friend tells me that it’s very traditional. It’s tricky to prepare: you poach the whole bird until the fat renders, but you must ensure the meat doesn’t overcook. It needs to be a quality bird. Here it is free range and cut into thick slices right across the bones – so, yes, a bit of spitting is involved, as you discover bones as you eat. It’s a generous, well-balanced dish with a nice splash of heat from chilli oil.
The soup (€10) is delicate, a chicken-based broth typical of what you get from the master stock pot that bubbles constantly in restaurants in China. A flash of green pak choi does its best to distract from the pallid colour of a “lion’s head” within. It’s a meatball, quite open in texture, made from finely chopped Andarl Farm pork. There’s a familiarity to the taste and texture, which are almost like those of tinned corned beef.
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Left to my own devices, I would have given deep-fried sweet and sour sea bass (€28) a wide berth, but, happily, it is here before me: a dramatic, dragon-red fish, looking more like a pangolin with crisp, battered scales. It is sōngshǔ yú, a celebratory dish also known as “squirrel fish”, from the city of Suzhou.
The fish has been filleted, cross-hatched, battered and deep-fried so that the skin shrinks and highlights the precise knife skills required to form the dramatic shape. Doused in a tomato and vinegar sauce, it is crunchy, sour and salty, with a restrained sweetness. The delicate fish inside is succulent, with additional nuggets in the collar that has been formed to look like the fish’s head.
The Yangzhou fried rice (€15) is very good, speckled with egg and vegetables, a portion large enough for four.
Various iterations of cheesecake do little to inspire on the dessert front. Then we spot pumpkin and sweet wine soup with sesame rice balls (€12), a substantial dish for two. It is more savoury than I had expected, with the pumpkin a background note in a warm soup feathered with egg, and glutinous rice balls filled with black sesame paste.
Nan is offering something quite different with the subtle flavours of Huaiyang cuisine. Ji Shenglin, the head chef, is a Jiangsu native, and, clearly, there is skill in the kitchen. If you want a quick, inexpensive bite, drop into Little Dumpling next door, but if you’re looking for a special night out, Nan is worth a visit.
Dinner for two with a bottle of wine and water was €132.
THE VERDICT: The perfect dish for Chinese New Year
Music: Lounge and jazz
Food provenance: Manor Farm chicken, Sustainable Seafood Ireland, McLoughlin’s butchers, Andarl Farm pork, Silver Hill Duck, Curley’s vegetables, Asia Market
Vegetarian options: Limited on the menu to cold appetisers, salads and boiled Cantonese choy sum, but most dishes can be adapted for vegetarian and vegan diets
Wheelchair access: Accessible, with no accessible toilet