Who needs lip enhancement when there’s Thai food?
My eating apparatus has been blowtorched and it feels like the swelling may be permanent. It’s not, of course. The smarting is just part of the joy of a chili-laced mango salad, coleslaw with beestings laced through its sweet juicy strands.
We’re in the Nightmarket in Dublin’s Ranelagh. It’s a small place along the last strip of shops before the village peters out into a sweep of grand houses. The place used to be An Bhialann and the Night Market has been here for roughly four months.
Its name prompts memories of the Night Garden, sleepy toddlers and a theory that Makka Pakka’s song may have been a recitation of a Thai menu. Then the giddiness subsides and the serious eating begins.
Jutarat Suwankeeree is the chef and her partner Conor Sexton is front of house. She was born in Malaysia and moved as a small child to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, where her grandparents had a food stall.
She began helping her grandmother at the age of six, according to the restaurant’s website, going to the 4am food market and helping to prepare the dishes before school. She’s upstairs in the kitchen, Sexton tells us. He clocks the visiting critic as soon as we take our seats. Next month they plan to have 50 more seats upstairs beside her.
The Night Market feels like a place Ranelonians have taken it to their hearts as a neighbourhood favourite. We’ve taken an early table in order to squeeze in. A man drops off a birthday cake for a celebration later on.
It’s a small space downstairs, the decor substantially unchanged since its last incarnation. It’s more bistro than market stall with bare wooden tables gathered around a small bar, a herringbone timber floor and white painted brickwork. The Thai touches are low-key like the lotus flower tealight holders and long green strips of pandan leaf in the water carafes along with ribbons of cucumber.
All the energy is on the plates, in dishes that are inspired by Thai night markets, vibrant busy places that bustle with life, heat and smells after the blazing sun has set. The menu is divided into small plates on one side and heftier curries and wok dishes to the other.
Thai style prawn crackers are browner and crunchier than the communion wafer Chinese takeaway version. They come with sweet chilli sauce and a rubbly brown peanut satay that tastes like it was made from nuts roasted freshly in their skins.
We've been warned that the mango salad is hot but there is still that dissonance between the mild look of the matchsticks of shredded mango and the punch it packs. Pass the pandan leaf water. The salad is a side to the hoy shell yang, grilled fresh scallops, cooked with their roe on, their buttery sweetness taken in a more thrilling direction with lime juice and coriander and shreds of chilli.
The yum poo nim are palm-sized soft shell crab fried in a feather light batter and eaten whole with fish sauce in the salad dressing to ping pong the deeper fishy flavours back and forth.
There’s miang kham, a beautiful plate of cha plu or wild pepper leaves with small mounds of crunchy, spicy, sweet and tangy things on them in the form of shallots, dried shrimps, tiny lime triangles and peanuts. We roll up the soft leaves and dip them in a sludgy palm sugar and dried shrimp sauce. It’s a reversal of that crunchy outside soft inside spring roll experience. Here the skin is all silky peppery leaf with the crunch all inside.
The meat dishes are the stars of the night. Baby gem lettuce leaves serve as boats for spicy chopped duck breast in the larb ped esan. Again there is heat and sweet in this dish and crunch too in the form of pieces of duck skin flayed so they look like tiny four-limbed starfish crisped to become duck scratchings.
An 8oz Village Butcher rib eye has been grilled and sliced into juicy ribbons before being tumbled in a bowl with salad, half moons of light skinned Thai aubergine sliced raw with a creamy flavour. There's lemongrass, fresh mint and lime leaves and shallots, along with the regulation chilli. The por pia tod are nicely executed rice paper rolls, skin thin coverings over tofu avocado, thick sweet basil leaves with mint and carrot with a rice vinegar and soy dip to add zing.
There are western desserts but I try the khao niew mamaung, a Thai riff on nursery rice pudding. Sticky rice has been cooked in coconut cream into a sort of sweet risotto and then topped with crescents of mango and crunchy yellow bean. I like it but I'm in a club of one.
Food at the Night Market is a cooking legacy passed from grandmother to granddaughter, which lends that bleached out word “authentic” a little more heft. There’s fire in this restaurant but there’s also freshness and the best kind of casual fun dining that happens when proper street food goes indoors.
Nightmarket Thai Restaurant, 120 Ranelagh, Dublin 6 (01) 538 5200
Verdict: 8/10 Ranelagh got itself a great new Thai restaurant
Food Provenance: Limited Village Butcher credited for the beef
Music: Inaudible over the crowd
Wheelchair access: Yes
Vegetarian options: Limited