Review: Hang Dai Chinese – Dublin

10 May

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By Rhea H. Boyden

Over the past few months I have been going to a spectacular new spot on Camden Street in the heart of Dublin city: Hang Dai Chinese Restaurant run by Dubliners Karl Whelan and Will Dempsey. A few weeks ago, I was there on a busy Saturday night and I had the pleasure of being introduced to them both. Karl, who is the executive chef, had just pulled a beautiful duck out of the oven when I met him and he looked very happy with it. And so he should be. Hang Dai, which opened its doors last November is doing a roaring trade. ‘We are delighted with ourselves,’ Karl told me when we finally had a chance to have a longer chat about Hang Dai’s decor, food and importantly, its sound system which was custom built to the highest standards. Karl told me that they had played around with different ideas when trying to get the desired feel and ambience for the venue.

On one side of the wall there is a subway car with plush dining booths. I asked Karl how this idea came about. ‘Our original idea was to have a glass and rubber handrail going down to a subway in an open stairwell so it would feel like an escalator, but then the idea morphed and we started looking at train images and train parts. We were aiming for a sci fi-esque look.’ The result is spectacular. They commissioned talented graphic designer Donal Thornton to create the graphic art that fills the spaces where one would find subway ads. One of the graphics is a subway map of various nightclubs. ‘We wanted to do a bit of music lineage from Jazz clubs to modern day clubs,’ he told me. ‘We are also planning to update those graphics and keep them fresh,’ he said. On the opposite wall there are impressive dragon murals which are the work of artist Johnny Fitzsimons. ‘He is our resident artist and is currently working on more murals in the bathroom,’ Karl said.

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Karl, who was formerly executive chef of Luna Restaurant and sous chef of Michelin star restaurant Chapter One among many other fine dining places, told me that they have recently revamped their menu. I have sampled their asparagus spring rolls with spicy bean curd hollandaise, as well as the steamed eggplant in fermented chilli sauce and their super special fried rice, but the star of the menu appears to be the apple wood-fired duck. Karl and Will have been to China several times visiting Beijing, Hong Kong and Chendu to research the food and culture of China. One big aim of these trips was to learn how to prepare Beijing duck in a wood-fired oven. Another menu item that caught my eye was whole brown crab in the shell ‘typhoon shelter’ style. I asked Karl about it. ‘We are just coming into summer and it is crab season,’ he said. ‘One dish we ate in Hong Kong were these massive crabs at a restaurant under a bridge where the fishermen come and shelter with their boats from the typhoon so that is where the inspiration came for that dish,’ he said.

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And while the menu is superb, Hang Dai is by no means only about food. Co-owner Will Dempsey is a record collector and DJ and a lot of time and effort was put into having the highest quality sound system installed. They both want quality late night music with the priority being talented vinyl DJs playing using the handmade rotary mixer that was sourced in Japan by Will. The rest of the system was built by the talented Toby Hatchett, who is a boat builder by trade but also constructs custom-built sound systems in his West Cork workshop. I also spoke to him about his work at Hang Dai and he said: ‘The brief was that it needed to be a very clean, undistorted sound, so that the listening experience is very pleasant while people are dining and it is not too loud. I built the DJ console around the rotary mixer which is really the heart of the whole sound system,’ he said. Toby worked with sound designer and engineer Abe Scheele on the sound design of the room. ‘We measured the whole room with microphones and we did it in a very detailed fashion in order to get that clean, clear sound wherever you are in the room,’ he said. Toby also told me that he loves Hang Dai and that it is a joy for him to continue tweaking the system.

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Dragon mural by Johnny Fitzsimons

Toby also did the decor and sound system for the recently opened upstairs section of Hang Dai – The Gold Bar, which is also stunning with a fabulous balcony looking over the bustling Camden Street below. As I stood on the balcony with some friends speaking to co-owner Will Dempsey, he proudly pointed out to me that they get sun all day long which makes it the perfect spot to enjoy the smaller upstairs menu of 8 cocktails and 8 dishes. ‘8 is a lucky number in China,’ Karl told me, ‘So we thought that was significant.’ Downstairs there is an extensive menu of expertly crafted and delicious cocktails including a house favourite, the Hang Dai sour.

The roster of talented DJs includes Sally Cinnamon, Nialler 9, Aoife Nic Canna, Eddie Kay, Donal Dineen and many others. ‘We recently had Brian Cross in to play,’ Karl said. Cross who is originally from Limerick is a successful photographer and DJ in Los Angeles and he was home giving an exhibition of his work. ‘He is a success story, so we were delighted he joined us for the night.’

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DJ Aoife Nic Canna and DJ Eddie Kay at Hang Dai

DJ Aoife Nic Canna who shares a monthly Saturday evening slot with DJ Eddie Kay told me: ‘Eddie and I get on well and I love the ambience. Our job is to keep the diners there after they eat and to keep it a Saturday night party set. I really look forward to playing there more during the summer.’ I have been at Hang Dai a few nights when Aoife and Eddie were on the decks and their music certainly kept me dancing a little longer than I had anticipated. I was about to call it a night the last time I was there when Aoife played the thrilling new release from Irish producer Glenn Davis entitled ‘Body and Soul’. Hang Dai’s menu and cocktails enjoyed while listening to quality music surely are a treat for the body and the soul and I am very happy to have found such a great new local in the heart of Dublin.

Hang Dai is at 20 Camden Street in Dublin City

Photo of Duck by Terry Mc Donagh

Featured image of dragon mural by Johnny Fitzsimons

Thanks to Karl Whelan, Will Dempsey, Toby Hatchett and Aoife Nic Canna for their stories.

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