Restaurant review: 'Nunki Tea House is a special place – I just wish I'd gone sooner'

Today marks the start of the Chinese New Year celebrations (it’s the Year of the Rat), and Nike has launched a new sneaker design – the Air Jordan 1 Low, decorated with appliqué roses and a firework-filled sky rather than rodents, thankfully – in honour of the event.

Only 5,000 pairs will be available, so competition will be fierce – in much the way that it will be for tables at Nunki Tea House when word gets out about just how good it is. I passed by several times over the past few months, spotting Chinese families tucking into steaming bowls of noodles, but only visited for the first time earlier this month. I wish I’d gone sooner.

Hui Xiong opened Nunki Tea House in May last year – her husband, Xing Pan, is also involved but as he works full-time as a business analyst in IT, it’s Hui who is on the floor running the show. The couple come from Wuhan in central China and arrived in Ireland seven years ago to study for masters degrees at the UCD Smurfit school. Hui went on to work as an accountant but became increasingly frustrated that she and Xing couldn’t find anywhere to eat authentic Chinese food near their home in Dún Laoghaire, nor anywhere to drink proper tea. So Hui decided to become a restaurateur.

It’s a truism of writing about Chinese restaurants that you need to be accompanied by a Chinese person to be assured of getting the ‘real’ menu rather than the one for ‘gweilo’ (that’s Cantonese slang for foreigners). But that’s not the case here – Hui tells me a couple of days after our visit that there are no separate menus, nor different versions of dishes.

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“I want all our customers to try real Chinese food from all the regions of China. We are not like other restaurants.”

One of the interesting things about the (very long) menu at Nunki is that there is a whole two-page section of dishes that have to be ordered 24 hours in advance. When I call to book, I’m told that it’s because Mister Wu, the chef, needs to order in the ingredients for these specially. I throw the culinary dice and pick stewed radishes with oxtail, and beer-stewed duck in Sichuan style. Both turn out to be excellent, the radish and oxtail broth delicate and subtle, the bone-in duck deliciously spicy and sticky.

What else do we eat? Quick-fried lettuce in a light soy dressing, a dish that’s somehow much more than the sum of its parts; beautifully soft, melting aubergine in a spicy garlic sauce; and mapo tofu, the flavour of spicy fermented bean paste vibrant and exciting. Hui suggests that we try braised beef with chilli sauce, with noodles and greens, their most popular dish.

She asks Mister Wu to dial down the heat for us on request, but it still leaves our tongues tingling pleasantly. The only dish that we don’t love is shredded potato stir-fried with vinegar, but apparently that’s a Marmite dish even among Chinese people. There are plenty of offal options for those so inclined – pork tongue, heart and tripe all feature, and it is still Organuary after all!

At the end of our meal, Hui gave us a slice of her delicious and light honey cake to try. She has an interest in artisan Asian and Japanese baking, healthier and less sweet than the Irish/European tradition, and hopes to expand that side of the business in the coming year.

When I lived in Dún Laoghaire, the building now occupied by Nunki was a café called the Giddy Goose. The exterior is now painted a vivid yellow – you certainly wouldn’t miss it – but the interior is little changed from the way it was a few years ago, other than for a cabinet of decorated tea pots and cups hinting at Hui’s other passion, proper tea.

Nunki Tea House is a special place and I’d encourage you to book in – round up a gang, pre-order dishes from the book-ahead menu (one of my guests still hasn’t forgiven me for not selecting the braised pork trotters with brown sauce and I regret the absence of crispy scallion oil pancakes) and pick up a few bottles of wine or beer. You won’t be disappointed.

THE RATING

9/10 food

7/10 ambience

10/10 value

26/30

ON A BUDGET

At lunchtime, a rice box or noodle dish costs a tenner, including a soft drink.

ON A BLOWOUT

Our blowout for three – although we ordered enough food for at least five – cost €99.65 before service, including corkage of €4.

THE HIGH POINT

Nunki Tea House is serving properly authentic Chinese food with charm.

THE LOW POINT

The décor leaves something to be desired.

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