A taste of East China in a great space for groups
What's the story?
Nan Chinese is a new opening from the team that previously brought us Stoneybatter success story Hakkahan and Double Happy takeaway in Rathfarnham. It hones in on Huaiyang cuisine - one of the “four great traditions” of Chinese gastronomy, and has a menu built around a selection of the main regional specialties. The kitchen team has been largely parachuted in directly from East China, and they say they're dedicated to serving up an authentic taste of a part of the world not currently represented in Dublin's food scene.
Considering how much Hakkahan impressed us with its top-tier take on Sichuan cuisine - one of the most familiar of the Chinese culinary traditions to Irish palates - we were very curious to see what fresh new flavours Nan might bring to the city.
Where should I go for a drink first?
If you’re after wine, Nan is just a short stroll from Loose Canon or a slightly longer one from Frank’s: both have a great by-the-glass range to while away however long you’ve got. On the cocktail front, Drury Buildings and El Silencio are each a stone’s throw away and awash with great drinks; you could stick to the Chinese theme and start off in Hang Dai’s Gold Bar.
Where should we sit?
The room has been completely overhauled since the time of the last tenant, much-missed late-night café Accents, with low overhead lighting casting a welcoming glow across the tan leather seating and dusky pink walls fitted out with simple Chinese city maps. Apart from a pair of window tables up front with good people-watching potential onto Stephen Street, there’s not much difference between the two-and four-top tables spread comfortably throughout the space, flanked by soft cotton drapes and low hanging lights.
There’s also a private dining space downstairs, with a grand chandelier-illuminated circular table that can seat up to twelve - perfect for your next group gettogether.
What did you eat?
Too much, most likely, but Nan has a broad and far-reaching menu that it’s hard not to want to get a wide selection from: bringing along a group is definitely recommended. We started off with soup dumplings because we can never say no to them, and here the paper-thin casing hides a delicately-flavoured pork broth and meat - a short and sharp umami hit and a welcome warm escape from the January cold.
Next up, a minced pork meatball in broth had a surprisingly soft texture, with meltingly tender meat yielding under the lightest pressure and almost dissolving in the mouth. The sad, stray little mushroom and bok choi left swimming in the broth didn’t bring much flavour though - this isn’t the kind of leftover liquid any table is likely to come to blows over.
More pork next - can you tell it's a speciality - in the form of the Shengjian bao. (We had meant to order these and forgot, but we'd been busted and then they arrived to the table FOC because we "had to try"). These plump little buns are pan-fried for a perfectly crisp bottom that complements the airy lightness of the dough, and inside, little discs of ground meat show off more of that tender pork texture. If you're opting for just one starter, this is the way to go.
The Nanjing salted duck was one of the dishes the owners most keenly recommended as a particular regional delicacy, and one the servers took extra care to ensure we knew would be coming out cold - while the mostly Chinese diners in at the same time as us seemed to be going straight for this one, there’s clearly a fear that Irish tastes might not take to cold meat on the bone.
It’s a uniquely-textured dish with the cooked and cooled duck notably less firm than more familiar servings after its salt treatment, but we found this a mixed bag. As the centrepiece of a salad this preparation could work really well; just served sliced in admittedly generous mounds, it can tend to taste a little one-note. Worth a shared plate among friends for a chance to give it a go, but again don’t expect arguments over who gets the last piece.
“Lion’s head” meatballs are one of Huaiyang cuisine’s classic exports, and come with salted egg yolk inside, bathed in brown sauce (an oyster, soy and beef broth reduction, not your childhood Chef bottle). The yolk has a soy-cured character and almost grainy texture that plays well against the sweet softness of the meat, while the sauce is so thick it’s a race to lap it all up before it congeals. Near-raw broccoli brings a pop of colour if nothing else - the one bum note in an impressive plate.
Seafood features heavily across the menu and we were disappointed to find no lobster on the night despite a dedicated section in the menu, so we made our peace with a pair of fish dishes instead. Stir-fried turbot came first, cooked with asparagus and bell peppers in a garlic chili sauce. It’s a well-presented plate framed with crispy fried noodles, which add needed crunch, even if they’re a little too tricky to get your chopsticks round. You won’t often see turbot on a Chinese menu in Dublin: we’re pleased to report this is one of the more interesting uses of the high-end fish we’ve seen in some time, although the chilli seemed to be more sweet than spicy.
The deep-fried sweet and sour seabass is plainly the standout visual presentation in the place - more than one of our fellow diners almost pulled a muscle craning to get a look at the plate as it came our way. The deep-frying gives the skin a crispy kick, shattering on first bite and melting into the bright red sauce. It’s a great first mouthful, albeit a dish we couldn’t imagine anyone eating all to themselves - like a lot of the food at Nan, this is probably best shared amongst a crowd.
On the side, we had a serving of claypot green beans with spicy mixed pork and a portion of Yangzhou fried rice. The egg, pea, and prawn-laden grains weren’t wildly distinct from anything you’ll get across town, and a little over-priced in our opinion at €18, but the green beans had us all clashing chopsticks for more, with the balance of fresh veg crunch, chili spice punch and a little hint of sweetness from whole roast garlic cloves. Like the rice, this is a dish you can find all over Dublin, but Nan's shows off the skill of this kitchen and this is something we would order every time.
By this point we didn't have much room left for dessert, but we'd been told we had to try one of the sweet soups for dessert, and again it was brought by management FOC. The pumpkin and sweet wine soup with sesame rice balls is a light finisher after all the savoury plates, with a deep, mellow earthiness from the stewed pumpkin, with stringy flesh floating throughout just a little off-putting. The sesame balls are the star of the show, rich bursts of nutty flavour that leave you wanting more, no matter how full you might be.
What about the drinks?
The wine menu is serviceable and unspectacular, with a reasonable price range to suit most budgets. We started with the Le Comtesse sparkling rosé, whose strawberry notes held up well against the tender pork plates. A Vickery Watervale Riesling followed, with a crisp, off-dry acidity that handled the spicier mains nicely. Beer options are decent with some craft choices, and likely to be a popular choice.
How was the service?
Attentive and friendly, with no issues catching an eye whenever we needed anything, but a little trouble confirming exactly which wine we wanted - a little more training on the list might be needed. We ordered everything together and the arrival of dishes was well-paced, with welcome breathing space left between each wave, but never so much that we started looking around us. Staff are very happy to help you make the difficult call on what you want, but be sure to say you want a traditional taste, as a few (mostly chicken) dishes have been added to cater to the less adventurous Irish eaters.
What was the damage?
Around €75 a head with two bottles of wine between three, but as you can see we over ordered. They do have take away containers if you want to do the same and take some home.
The latest, welcome addition to the growing roster of quality Chinese restaurants in Dublin, Nan shines a spotlight on a lesser-seen cuisine with a diverse selection of dishes and simple, confident cooking. The flavours aren't as in your face as some other Chinese cuisines, but the whole concept of Huaiyang is supposed to be softly flavoured, simple and sophisticated.
Its soft lighting and low-key background music make it an ideal choice for casual catchups, especially with friend groups who are happy to pass plates back and forth, but currently veggie options are thin on the ground - with two of the three dishes in the “vegetables” section not even meat-free, this might not be the best option if your group isn’t all sworn omnivores.
Unit 1, Drury Hall, Stephen Street Lower, Dublin 2