Why the new Hakka restaurant is a smart bet if you’re searching for clever Chinese food.
These are rare old times. It used to be there was a new restaurant opening in Northern Ireland every ten minutes. Now you have to wait almost a whole day before you get to hear about a new place.
The new place in question this week is Chinese and it’s in the heart of Belfast. The name, Hakka Noodles, might imply there’s a cool, funky, informal noodle bar thing going on here. And you wouldn’t be far wrong. But Hakka Noodles is more of a soberly housed new restaurant (late Victorian, converted city centre industrial warehouse). It pays tribute to clean, urban understatement and comfort rather than noisy, brash look-at-me-I’m-in-a-trendy-noodle-bar vulgarity.
The most striking entrance of any restaurant in the city — an eye-wateringly bright crimson red cage of intricate bamboo work welcomes you into the little lobby area and is so glamorous and hypnotic that you struggle to find the actual door — eventually gives way to a gently lit but bright dining room staggered over a split-level floor.
The big windows and high ceilings provide plenty of daytime light while the considered interior design of coffee colours and cream generate a timeless modernist vibe where the light flatters each diner. And the sense that the diner is king is immediately evident. Keen and graceful staff dressed in crushed linen cream-coloured pyjama suits — the noble lord with whom I was having lunch and who has significant restaurant interests himself didn’t like the outfits as he thought they were too grubby — are mindful and alert, even on this packed Wednesday.
This is next-generation Chinese. The excellent Macau on Belfast’s Ormeau Road represents the start of a transition from traditional Chinese restaurant with the chow mein and sweet and sour staples to 21st century slickness and confidence with the fusion of local raw materials and Shanghai magic.
The next step in the evolution of Chinese restaurants is the simpler more minimalist and yet exciting menu of the likes of Hakka, where nothing is threatening or weird yet everything seems to be so adventurous. This is down to the wily Eddie Fung, the man who brightened our lives first with the Red Panda Chinese restaurants and who now operates Zen and Gaze. Hakka Noodles is intended to be another new angle on Chinese eating and if that’s the aim, then he has scored a bullseye.
Take the guotie — dumplings of pork, prawn and/or chicken — starters. The delicate little dumplings are firm and packed with the fresh flavours of the meats and seafood. The Szechuan sauce in which the wontons are served is a special-effects delight with time-delay switch. We were both caught out after asking for spoons to slurp up the inoffensive looking Szechuan bouillon only to be shot in the back of the throat some five or six seconds later by an outburst of shrapnel. The intensity of the chilli passed as quickly as it had exploded in the mouth and made us both laugh out loud.
The triumphant dish among the selection of starters, however, was the Irish mussels in black bean sauce. A generous little bowl of fat mussels in a dark creamy sauce revealed itself to be one of the most intriguing experiences this year. The mussels, for one thing, were perfectly cooked, plump and briney. The sauce with its black beans and shards of chilli was fiery and powerful, yet married to the mussels in a way that allowed both to shine and one never overwhelmed the other.
The crispy duck puffs were sweet. We debated over their suitability. The noble one thought not, while I was indifferent — there’s always room for puff pastry on my plate, no matter what stage of the meal.
The main noodle courses were brought before the end of the starters, which actually enhanced the meal. It meant the remaining drops of sauce and bits and pieces of wontons could play a bit-part in the second course. The Singapore vermicelli was plentiful and shot through with all sorts of components, including little strips of pork and shrimp. The fine vermicelli was spiced up to provide more flames in the mouth and the overall impression of an authentic working man’s lunch in Shanghai was made all the stronger thanks to a £4.80 price tag. Any other Singapore noodles I’ve seen in takeaways have always nudged closer to the tenner mark and never tasted this good.
The king prawns, mushroom and bamboo shoot sauce on the other dish temporarily disguised the mix of fried and soft noodles beneath. These were excellent and the textures worked beautifully to make an interesting dish that could otherwise be close to bland.
The 70-seat Hakka Noodles deserves to do well. Eddie Fung got it right with Zen, only a door or two down, in so far as a whole new generation of bright young things has been exposed to tastes that don’t always rely on chilli, curry or onions. I’m not sure about Zen’s approach to Japanese cuisine, but who cares when you see hundreds of twentysomethings enjoying a night out in this place? Hakka will have the same impact and if anyone knows how to get it right, it’s Eddie Fung.
Incidentally, the wine list is short, cheap and not at all bad. It used to be that when a new place opened it was BYO for a few months until it secured its licence. Not now. But six dishes and a bottle of wine for a hair over £50 is the one thing carried over from the traditional Chinese restaurant — good value and low cost.
Szechuan wonton £3.80
Panfried pork dumpling £3.80
Crispy duck puff £3.80
Mussels in black bean sauce £4.20
Singapore vermicelli £4.80
King prawn mushroom £6.50
Bottle wine £13.75
Wine x 2 glass £7
Espresso x 2 £3.20