Full-on eastern promise

CHINA SICHUAN’S reputation certainly precedes it.

Owned by Kevin Hui, who greets us in a dapper suit in the reception area, it is regularly cited as the top Chinese restaurant in Ireland.

It has bagged ‘Best Ethnic’ awards from Georgina Campbell and Food & Wine Magazine. It has a loyal clientele, and no end of glowing reviews.

But does it live up to the hype?

Stepping inside, the first thing that strikes us is the polish. Coats are taken at the door, waiters swan about in black, and there’s a slightly corporate feel to the rooms. Slate, dark wood, frosted glass, bamboo silhouettes, armless chairs, a recessed wine rack and dimly lit, oversized lampshades all combine to create an international atmosphere.

At our table, black chopsticks rest on a smooth stone. Sitting down, we’re issued with a brushed steel jug of water and the menus, an a la carte and a ‘Value Menu’ with three courses for €24.50.

Both are thick with Sichuan specialities, with slick, modern interpretations of classic dishes like dumplings, spring rolls, tea-smoked duck and Kung Po chicken. It’s clear from the most cursory glance that we’re in for large helpings of garlic, chilli and ginger.

The place is surprisingly full for a Wednesday night, with diners ranging from a group of women examining each others’ jewellery, to three Asian businessmen chatting away in the corner (jackets off but ties still on), to an older man on his own reading a book. Everyone is comfortable.

After we order (my brother, K, and I from the Value Menu, and L from the à la carte), a very personable waiter delivers a little bowl of marinated bean sprouts. It’s a feisty little teaser, with flecks of carrot and a sugary tinge to the chilli oil, a slimy crunch to the sprouts, and about two seconds after swallowing, a waft of hot spice. They’re moreish. We all want a bigger bowl.

My starter is a plate of long beans with salt and chilli. The beans are lightly speckled in a batter I find to be a little on the soft and doughy side, but biting through, the greens themselves are crunchy and verdant, and there’s lots of chilli and a fresh sprinkle of dry leaves alongside.

L’s salt and chilli squid also has a slightly wet batter where she’s expecting something crispy, but the squid lurking beneath it is lovely and meaty, and the portions are generous. Most dishes are made with potato, rice or cornflour too, which broadens the options available to her as a coeliac.

For mains, I order pan-fried rib eye beef with oyster mushrooms in ‘Chengdu’ barbecue sauce. A bowl arrives dripping in thick, tangy sauce — a sweet mixture laced with soft mushrooms, snappy slices of onion and pepper, and beef that is soft enough to taste, almost braised. It’s a big portion, which I nevertheless demolish, though certainly more about sweetness than subtlety.

Meanwhile, L’s fried lamb shreds in ginger and garlic sauce are nice and piquant, and K’s fried prawns from the Value Menu are big and fleshy — mixed with lively vegetables in a peppery black bean sauce. Tasty if unspectacular fare, and a choice of fried or boiled rice is included with the set menu.

It feels satisfying to see a restaurant like this making a genuine play for value. As well as the set dinner menu (available Monday to Thursday), China Sichuan does two-course lunch menus for €15, and offers a free taxi home for customers within a five-mile radius on Saturday nights.

The location, however, lets it down. Hoi moved to Sandyford in 2008, upgrading from the Chinese stylings of his former location in Kilmacud, but the economy didn’t move with him. It’s close to the Luas, but footfall and atmosphere are low in an area of Dublin where the clocks stopped with the Celtic Tiger. An uncompleted apartment complex looms nearby.

Since moving to Sandyford, China Sichuan has undergone a period of closure. It recently reopened with a new menu, but the same old professionalism from Hoi. I hope it stays busy.

Desserts include a mixed sorbet — with flavours ranging from a lovely, gooey mango to a sharp lemon that tastes too rindy; a chocolate brownie that disappears off the plate but ultimately deemed too dry, and a decent banana fritter. A so-so finish, but an enjoyable meal overall.

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