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I'm not sweet on sour soup

My first encounter with Chinese food was in Manchester way back in the past century. I was doing evening classes, I forget the subject. During a break, it emerged that Johnson, one of the guys in the class, was the proprietor of a Chinese restaurant.

Furthermore, he kindly issued an open invitation to a couple of us to dine there, gratis. A few months later, after a mini pub crawl, we decided to take him up on it. There was no sign of our friend in the restaurant but we were assured by one of the waiters that "Mr Wong be here very soon". We sat down at table to wait. A full hour later, Johnson had not appeared. "We'd better eat something," I said. Pete, my dining companion, no more versed in Cantonese cuisine than I was, ordered a few random dishes. Our enquiry for the boss man yielded another "Mr Wong be here very soon". Repeat this cameo ad infinitum and you'll get an idea how the evening went. We couldn't up and leave, as at some point we discovered that neither of us had any money. "Just have to keep eating until Johnson arrives," said Pete. Fast forward to ten-to-two in the morning. Behold a brace of full-to-bursting diners in an otherwise empty restaurant; tired waiters getting ever surlier. We thought of doing a runner until the kitchen door opened and the chef appeared cleaver in hand. Then the front door swung open and in came Johnson Wong and his girlfriend. "What you lads doing here?" he enquired. He sat down with us and summoned up four Cognacs. Fortunately, he'd remembered his invitation, phew!

My appetite for Chinese food was whetted that night. A year or two later I was cockahoop as Manchester's own city centre Chinatown developed. I was equally overjoyed when Chinese and other Asian restaurants brought the sun to the bleak culinary landscape of Dublin's Parnell Street a few years ago. I eat on this strip regularly. Each time I go, a hitherto unknown-to-me diner impinges on my consciousness. I hadn't previously been to Lee Kee, an unpretentious little place on the south side of the street. It came recommended by a Chinese friend who told me it existed mainly to feed impecunious Chinese students but was certainly foreign devil-friendly.

Decor was basic, with tables an assortment of plain light wood and glass-topped, all spotless. The menu is a mere five pages, contrasting with the 'family bibles' favoured by others. The most exotic dish on the bill of fare seemed to be whelks with ginger and spring onion. There were a few dishes lurking on the back page that I took to be dim sum and I accordingly ordered two -- a pork dumpling and a prawn cheng fen. The latter is a favourite of mine and a good tester as this simple folded semolina pancake stands or falls on the quality of the prawns enclosed within. Lee Kee's were good but not amazing. The dumplings were hearty and tasty.



CONFUSED

We followed this by soup. I am a mad fan of hot and sour soup or 'sweet, sour and hot' soup as Lee Kee's version was called. This one was acquired only after discussion with the pleasant waitress who initially seemed confused as to what I wanted.

She seemed to have got it right but the soup when it arrived, though it had all the components -- the chicken and pork shreds, the mushrooms, the ginger, etc, was not sweet, sour nor hot, except in the purely calorific sense.

We also sampled something called Guandong duck which turned out to be not dissimilar to Peking/Beijing duck, the kind that comes with cucumber, cabbage, a thick fruity sauce and pancakes (this was also listed on the menu). Though adequate, I've had better; the duck was a tad dry. The sweet crispy pork, on the other hand was knockout. The firm, crispy batter coating on the slices of pork loin was not fazed by the sticky sauce, which had an appealing lemony zing. Throughout the meal we drank good, plain Chinese tea.

We explored the two wines, listed at a reasonable €15 a bottle. The red was good old quaffable Jacob's Creek, the white something quite nasty (I'd had it before elsewhere).

For the €28 spend it would be churlish to criticise too heavily. The cooking could have been a little more delicate. It would be good to unravel the mystery as to why the soup didn't do what it said on the label. Lee Kee's ambience would depend heavily on the presence of a host of chattering chopstick clickers. But I'd certainly go back for an informal lunch.