What's the story?
CN Duck opened quietly enough on Ranelagh's thoroughfare in February, and apart from one (copied and pasted from their website) article on Lovin' Dublin, and a review in the Sunday Independent, they haven't had a whole pile of coverage, but on a recent visit to Ranelagh in search of somewhere to eat, their online reviews stuck out like a bullet oven in a Dublin suburb.
It's a lazy, false stereotype that because people of a similar ethnicity as the restaurant are eating there it must be the best around - people of every colour, race and background eat bad food, and what if it's just the best of a bad lot? - but what stuck out most from all the praise was the steady stream of Asian diners gushing about the quality of the roast meats, and how it was the taste of home they'd been sorely missing. One read: "The best roast duck you could expect to have - it is as best as a 5-star hotel in Hong Kong. This is amazingly delicious. Absolutely worth for the value. Will be visiting again! Salute to the Chef!!! Thank you CN Duck! It effectively heals my homesick." How could we not after that.
Cities like Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai are famous for their juicy, crispy-skinned roast meats, cooked in special bullet ovens shaped like torpedos, and hung up in windows and street stalls across town. These ovens circulate heat evenly around the meat, rendering the fat and crisping the skin, and while these aren't the first ones in Dublin, we've never found a source of Chinese roast meats that we thought could compete with the ones we've eaten in South East Asia. Multiple attempts at contacting the restaurant to get more information about who's behind it went unanswered, but one online report claimed they're connected to the Zakura Japanese restaurants. If we ever find out we'll let you know.
Where should I sit?
This is fast casual dining, with two long tables for sharing with fellow diners, a table for four, two high tables for two, and one outside table that can seat four.
The roadside seating isn't the most comfortable and you'll probably be wary of your belongings, but it is nice sitting in the sun (on the rare occasions it shows up). None of the seating has been designed with lounging in mind, so just pull up wherever's free.
What's the food like?
You're here for the roast meats and we'll hear no more about it, but there is quite a large menu in case you have a heathen in your midst who wants to break ranks (or you just want to get a selection of different dishes - far more reasonable). There are also enough vegetarian dishes to bring any meat-free friends too.
We asked which starters were made on site, and were told the spring rolls and the Shao Mai dumpings, so got one of each. There was no doubt the duck spring rolls were made fresh, with uneven wrappers giving up extra crispy bits, and a filling full of fresh, crunchy vegetables, and rich chunks of meat. With a side of sweet chilli sauce for dipping, these are spring rolls the way they should be, yet so rarely are.
The Shao Mai (also called Siu Mai) dumplings were stuffed with a pork and mushroom filling so juicy you will want to eat these in one mouthful, the thin pastry pleats holding it all together, and a whole prawn on top. They come with a soy based dipping sauce and are utterly delicious, but heavy. Perfect for sharing, but a whole portion as a starter and you might be done for.
For the star attraction, there are a few ways of doing it. The four roast meats on offer are roast duck; crispy pork belly; BBQ char siu pork; and Cantonese soy chicken. You can either order portions of the meat by itself, plumping out your meal with rice and other sides, or you can order it as part of a rice bowl. You can also order combos to try two at once, and because we had to try it all, we got a meat-only combo of roast duck and crispy pork belly, and a rice bowl combo of BBQ char siu pork and Cantonese soy chicken.
And oh my this meat. If you've ever eaten your way around those bustling Asian cities this will take you right back there. Too often you find duck in this style with too much fat under the skin, making for unpleasantly chewy mouthfuls, but this was flawlessly rendered down with a slightly sticky marinade, showing what those ovens are capable of in the right hands. You can pay an extra €1 to have it deboned, and if you don't do that just be careful as little shards of bone can sneak into your mouth when you least expect it.
The crispy pork belly is cooked in a way that will make you never want to cook it at home again (or eat it anywhere else). By its nature it has more fat than the duck and in more places, but the cracking belongs in the all-star leagues, and the sliver of fat underneath would give fat on meat a good name. There were pieces towards one end that were all fat and crackling, but some people like that too, and there was a lot of meat to get your chops around.
The BBQ char siu pork and Cantonese soy chicken were the combo for our rice bowl, and once again, the soy chicken is the best we've had anywhere here. Often slippery, with rubbery skin and no flavour, this skin is made for eating, with the chicken melting underneath it. Again it's on the bone so bear that in mind when jamming it into your mouth. Thin slices of char siu pork had a vivid barbecue flavour, and the portions of meat felt very generous. The rice bowls come with half a jammy, soy-cured egg (as good as the best ramen bars serve, anywhere). stir-fried greens, steamed pak choi and edamame beans, and for €15 for the meat combo this is a hell of a bowl of food.
On the table are duck sauce (very hard to find good versions outside of Asian and this is a good version) and chilli oil that tasted like it was based on fermented shrimp paste. Great condiment game.
The only downside to these delicious meats is a lack of provenance information. The website says they use "locally sourced meat" but that doesn't mean much, and we would have loved more information on where they're getting it.
Outside of the roast meat bonanza there's ramen, noodles, fried rice and stir fries, and while we tend to look at these as filler items, it's hard to imagine the standards dropping from the rest. There's also a good value daytime menu served from 12:00 - 17:00, with a selection of dishes for €9.95 - hard to argue with. We're pretty desperate to go back and try more, and have spent the week quietly cursing Ranelagh residents for having such easy access to it.
What about drinks?
Soft drinks or beer only - Tiger, Asahi or Tsing Tao, but they also do BYOB at the bargain price of €1 per beer or €6 per bottle of wine. This would be a great place to break out some special bottles, and the food's not spicy enough to overpower anything.
How was the service?
Very pleasant and to the point. You order at the till and they'll bring your food to you. As you'd expect everything comes when it's ready, so if you want to spread it out we'd advise asking if they can do this when you order.
And the damage? €44.95 for a generous amount of food for two with leftovers to take away. For food of this quality we think the value for money is in the city's top tier right now.
The verdict? For our money these are the best Chinese roast meats in Dublin right now, and an itch is finally being scratched to complete satisfaction. We hoped CN Duck would be decent, we didn't know it was going to be this good, but maybe we'll take more notice of those gushing Google reviews more often. Hopefully they've got their eyes on other sites so more people can experience the joy, but maybe it's best kept as one solo special spot for soy chicken and char siu. Either way, we're coming up with all sorts of excuses to get back to Ranelagh.
CN Duck 12 Ranelagh, Dublin 6 www.cnduck.ie