What’s the story?
Big Fan was another one of 2020's mid-pandemic openings - not the way they envisioned their first year in business but plans were already in motion when the world as we knew it ended last March, so they made the best out of a bad situation. They started with take-away, then a brief spell of indoor dining in December, then some seriously delicious at home meal kits (one of the overall standout ones for us) and now they're back with outdoor dining.
The owners have a background in burger restaurants and art galleries, but their head chef Tom is from Hong Kong and has been cooking Chinese food for over 30 years, and Big Fan was a chance for him to really unleash what he could do. They say they want to bring something different and genuine to the Dublin restaurant scene, the best Chinese food in town (set to a back drop of Hiphop tunes), and after what we sampled at home we were keen to try the full Big Fan experience.
Where should we sit? They've done a really good job of maximising their space for outdoor dining, including taking out the window at the front and seating people technically inside the restaurant - some of you who are still unvaccinated and/or anxious about being around strangers might not be comfortable with this. If that's the case they have tables outside on the path too, which are well sheltered from the elements - on the night we were there it lashed but we didn't feel a drop. Just make sure you specify any preferences on booking.
What's the food like?
There's quite a large menu, with bao, jiaozi (dumplings), small plates, big plates, sides and sauces. Our eyes were popping at all the inventive dishes, each sounding more appealing than the last, and we were pretty pleased that so many were in the €6.50 - €10 bracket so we could justify ordering too much food.
First up were crispy wontons filled with Toonsbridge scarmorza and squash, and a plum sauce for dipping. Often this kind of 'Asian fusion' is a complete car crash, but not at Big Fan. This kitchen has a a bit of magic when it comes to flavour and texture, and if they're not careful they might give Asian fusion a good name again.
Next up were duck wings (which must have been legs unless there are mutant ducks walking around St. Stephen's Green that we don't know about), deep-fried and tossed in Big Fan seasoning. We'd initially asked for a sauce to come with them thinking they might be dry, but we were very wrong. These bad boys are so good you won't want to dilute the flavour with anything. The juiciness, the spice mix, the crispy bits - we haven't seen or eaten anything like this in the city before, and that goes for a lot of the menu here.
We'd surprised ourselves by falling hard for the cheeseburger spring rolls at Hawker, so when we saw that Big Fan had put cheeseburger jiaozi on the menu it was only going to end one way - in our mouths. Once again a restaurant has managed to take a processed, corporate (albeit delicious) piece of fast food and morph it into something we feel much better about eating, complete with burger sauce and gherkins. It might sound easy but it's so hard to get right, and again here they've nailed it. A few more of these inventions and we'll be able to write a piece on "where to eat a cheeseburger when you don't want to eat a cheeseburger". Cheeseburger salad? Cheeseburger sushi? The options are endless.
Last for the ones we loved was the 'Legend of the Ox' - a juicy beef shin ball wrapped in kataifi pastry on a bed of sweet soy mushrooms. The meat was juicy, the pastry crispy, and the soy mushrooms were the umami bed it was all wrapped up in. Another really excellent, different plate of food.
We'd ordered the 'Black Dragon' bao - who could resist the promise of Irish lobster tail and Wagyu beef on a squid ink bun - but it wasn't what we were expecting, and we initially thought they'd brought the wrong dish. The bao came as a flat rectangle which had been deep-fried (leaving it greasy), as was the lobster tail, and everything combined just felt too rich and unbalanced. Big talk, unfortunately didn't deliver for us.
Prawn toast was perfectly good but no better than most other good Chinese restaurants, and after the plates that had come before we were expecting something more exciting. The pineapple salsa was a bit underwhelming, and serving it on the plate with the toast caused them to get soggy bottoms - not a good look, or texture.
The most disappointing was the Taiwanese fried chicken with Big Fan chilli sauce. The outside wasn't crunchy, the chicken tasted wooly (no mention of provenance or free-range, which was strange considering the other Irish producers name-checked), and the sauce was all heat and not much else. Our mouths were burning uncomfortably for about 5 minutes afterwards, at which point we realised we'd never been brought any water - that was a speedy run to the desk.
There were so many more dishes we wanted to try (the pork kou rou, cucumber jelly fish salad, what will their chicken balls and rice be like!?), but we were defeated, except for the obligatory part of the stomach that saves itself for dessert. There are two non vegan options - deep-fried mantou (dough) with coconut condensed milk, and a coconut and mango parfait. We went for the latter, thinking that anything else deep-fried might push us over the edge, and the parfait was perfect. Light, cooling, creamy and fruity, it was like a delicious digestif in dessert form.
What about the drinks? It's a simple list but well thought out. There's a small selection of wine on tap (we liked the Lo Pateret orange, also in Sprezzatura up the road), a sake, a few cocktails (some with sake, Sichuan pepper and pandan leaf) and a nice selection of beers. This isn't somewhere you're going to be drinking vintage champagne or top shelf cognac and it's all the better for it. There's also kefir and kombucha for the non-drinkers/drivers.
What about the service?
Staff were lovely and very welcoming, but service was quite loose. We had to get out of our seats several times to ask for water, napkins, drinks, and they're weren't at full capacity. They've clearly hired (successfully) for personality, but the ship could be run a bit tighter (which to be fair is a far easier fix than if you had unlovely, unwelcoming staff).
And the damage? €104.08 for eight plates of food and four drinks, which felt like very good value. We would have been full with less.
The verdict? When Big Fan hits its mark it's startlingly good. For a good portion of the meal we sat there shaking our heads at the creativity, flavour and sheer originality of what we were eating. There are bags of potential here, despite every dish not being a home run (yet). We'd like to go back and put another eight dishes through their paces, and the taste memories of the knockout ones ensures it's on the return list. There's nowhere in the city quite like Big Fan, it really does feel different and innovative, and you get the sense they're not going to be sitting back and phoning it in any time soon. We'd hedge our bets that there's a lot more to come from these guys.
Big Fan 16 Aungier Street, Dublin 2 bigfan.ie