M&L Chinese: Sichuan spice and a seriously good deal on corkage
What’s the story?
As diverse as Dublin’s dining scene is right now, we’ve always suffered from a lack of the type of Chinese food they actually eat in China (trying to avoid the ‘A’ word). There are spice bags and 3-in-1’s on every corner, but try to get a plate of Xi’an Biang Biang noodles or braised, fermented fish belly and you’ll have a job on your hands.
M&L on Cathedral Street is well known as one of the few places to get real Sichuan food, but it’s having a bit of an industry boom of late, as word has gotten out about their €6 corkage charge. Cue half the restaurants in Dublin booking it for their post-Christmas Christmas party (no restaurant has their Christmas party in December) so they can BYO some serious wine.
Lisa Cope - 11th February 2018
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Where’s good for a drink beforehand?
Let's be honest, it’s not exactly Soho around here. Madigan’s on O’Connell Street is decent for a pint. Apart from that their sister site The Vintage Teapot just across the road is a cute (if ethnically muddled – Chinese dumplings, Italian antipasti and Russian blinis) place for a glass of wine, or post-dinner tea or coffee – they have a particularly good Chinese tea selection.
What’s the room like?
Like a Chinese restaurant. Cosy with some nice artwork on the walls and minimal table settings. The main room is nicer than the narrower section leading to the kitchen, but this tends to be quieter so better if you want some privacy.
What's good to eat?
Sichuan cooking centres around Sichuan peppercorns, chillies and garlic, so expect lots of each. There are non-Sichuan dishes here too (black bean, sweet and sour, peking) but we’d steer clear and stick to the ‘chef’s recommendations’ on the menu if you want the real experience.
The specials on the board are a great place to start. From there we had beef and pork dumplings, and steamed buns with pork mince. All were excellent, especially drowned in chilli oil.
We tried the chicken and sweetcorn soup (more out of curiosity than anything else) which was definitely of the more ‘European Chinese’ variety - gloopy and tasteless. Thankfully things picked up with the French beans with dry chilli, which seem to be everyone’s favourite. You might balk at €11 for a plate of green beans but you won’t once you’ve tried them. They’re M&L’s version of class A drugs - highly addictive.
From a previous visit we can highly recommend the deep-fried seabass Sichuan style (on the bone), but this time we tried Seabass in hot and spicy sauce (off the bone), which was like a really good sweet and sour with extra depth of flavour. The fish was perfectly cooked and the skin crunchy, but it wasn't as good as the Sichuan version.
We meant to order deep fried chicken with chilli and crispy peanuts (again had it on a previous occasion and again loved it) but in a miscommunication ended up with Kung Pao chicken, which is also a Sichuan dish and was very good, but a bit pedestrian. If you do order the deep fried chicken be warned that the portion is huge, but you can always take the leftovers home (you'll find images of it on Instagram).
The deep-fried aubergine with soy sauce was also enjoyable if not overly memorable, but didn’t look remotely deep fried. No crispy edges. We wanted to try the whelks which are an M&L favourite but they weren’t available. The soft-shell crab is also mentioned constantly in reviews but seems to be a table divider. Some love it, some don't. We didn't have enough space to take the chance.
In synopsis, you need to know what to order in M&L, and make sure you communicate it clearly to the staff.
What about the wine?
€6 corkage. That’s all you need to know. We took a cursory glance at the wine list and are sure none of it will kill you, but it would seem a wasted opportunity not to bring something special when the corkage charge is this low. To put it into perspective, a wine that you pay €20 for will cost you €26 to drink at M&L. Standard restaurant margins would make it in or around €50.
We took an organic, biodynamic white from a Portugese producer called Aphros (annoyingly not currently available in Ireland, sorry) which was zesty and full of flavour (lime, orange, white flowers), with lovely minerality. A perfect pre-dinner drink while we waited for food to arrive. The chilli sauce with the dumplings eviscerated our palates so we couldn’t taste it after that, but luckily it was almost finished.
We also took a Greek red from producer Gaia's 2009 vintage; an obscure Greek grape variety called Agiorgitiko. It’s currently on sale in O’Briens for €18.45 down from €28.95 (for no reason other than most Irish people don’t buy Greek wine), and was a hauntingly beautiful bottle, full of perfume, flowers and blackberries. (It's worth noting that we went back for a second bottle which wasn’t as good, but that’s wine, it’s a living thing so can be unpredictable). Neither were a perfect match for Sichuan food but not much is.
And the service?
Basic but friendly. No-one will fall over you and you might need to wave a few times but staff are very accommodating.
There is great food at M&L but you could easily fall into the trap of the Western diner and end up with a pretty standard Chinese, which would be a great shame. Do your research, stick to the chef's specials and bring your own wine and you'll be fine.