When I see the words ‘Pan Asian’ in reference to a restaurant menu, I’m torn between hanging my head in despair and rolling my eyes at their laziness. Sometimes, if I’m feeling particularly self-righteous, I’ll do both. Anyone who’s ever laid eyes on a map will know that the continent of Asia is huge, so is it any surprise that it is also diverse in landscape, culture, and food styles. What makes a restaurant think it can pan across Asia, cherry pick a few famous dishes from each country, and do them justice?
That was strike one for Chi Kitchen and we hadn’t even set foot in the restaurant. The second strike came when I learnt the restaurant is housed in Debenhams; I found that slightly awkward as I don’t make a habit of dining where I buy my delicates, though they do have separate entrance. And the third strike? Well, there wasn’t one. Spoiler alert, it was good. Which was a bit of a disappointment to anti-pan-Asian-restaurant-rant Connie… but quite the relief to hungry Connie.
Our pan Asian culinary expedition started in Japan only because I find it hard to look past sushi on a menu anywhere. The Chi Kitchen roll came with no explanation on the menu which naturally meant I had to order it, nothing like that element of surprise with your sushi order. I was not let down – in the middle was the usual avocado and capsicum and the more unusual addition of asparagus, on top were beautifully layered slices of tuna, salmon and dollops of brightly coloured roe.
Staying in Japan, the beef kushiyaki proved to be another solid choice, however it was the popcorn shrimp which left a longer lasting impression. We didn’t order this because popcorn-anything just reminds me of KFC’s popcorn chicken which is not a memory I wish to hold close to my heart or stomach, but the team insisted we give it a go. The juicy prawns were encased in a crunchy batter, then coated in a sweet wasabi mayonnaise; I have to give it to them, it was addictively delicious.
We darted across to Malaysia which is where I had intended to go all along as I knew that Masterchef winner, and all round cheerleader for Malaysian food, Ping Coombes is the consultant chef for the group. I was excited to spot sambal prawns, a childhood favourite, on the menu but sadly Chi Kitchen’s rendition didn’t quite live up to my dad’s own version. A nice mix of prawns and vegetables, but the sambal was not the thick, fiery sauce I had my fingers crossed for.
The side order of roti was a different story; two crisp, flakey discs complete with that sought-after buttery flavour were a delight to dip into the accompanying bowl of curry. A bold claim, but a certain someone stated that these would rival those from Euston’s famous Roti King. Yep, that’s pushing the boat out but we would honestly come back just for these alone!
Steamed sea bass fillets with lemongrass, garlic and a lime seafood sauce were akin to the classic whole steamed fish centrepieces I remember at Malaysian-Chinese style family dinners. A light and vibrant dish, the fish was remarkably well cooked and the portion was generous. From here, we crossed into unplanned territory… we must have looked hungry as the team then brought us the grilled lamb chops in a sweet soy sauce with enoki mushrooms and salad, and the Korean sirloin steak with bulgogi sauce and chive mash.
The lamb chops were incredibly tender but their best feature was the subtle smokiness, adding another dimension to what might have otherwise been a bit of an uneventful offering. In contrast, nothing about the beef was subtle. Not the intensely sweet (verging on a little sickly for me) sauce, nor the garish bright green mash, but all that can be overlooked for beautifully pink slices of beef. Thankfully, though bold in colour, the flavour of the mash was less challenging and proved to be an oddly good pairing with the steak. Both dishes were worth adding another stop on our pan Asian tour for, even if we were left ready to explode by the end of it.
I would have been happy with the common Asian way of ending a meal – with a platter of cut fruit and some tea, but Chi Kitchen have some other ideas. I am a sweet tooth through and through, so when the chocolate sphere was placed in front of me, my eyes lit up. Who wouldn’t go ga-ga for a combination of ice cream, chocolate, caramel sauce and some berries, all prettied up on the plate? It feels like everyone is doing a chocolate sphere but the simple theatre of the hot sauce melting the chocolate is, and will always be a people pleaser. To counteract the excess, we did enjoy a pot of flowering jasmine tea…
By the end of our pan Asian food tour, we had clocked up a fair few miles darting from one country to another, with full tummies as evidence. Has this convinced me to go a little easier on pan Asian restaurants? Somewhat… I’m still not in love with the ‘bit of this and that’ concept, but on this occasion, I have to put away the soapbox and jump off my high horse. Our dinner was stellar, and there were some standout dishes I would happily elbow my way down Oxford St for, and it’s much cheaper than a plane ticket to Asia!
What do you think of pan Asian restaurants?
Thanks to Chi Kitchen for making me soften my stance on pan Asian restaurants and the wonderful service, but as always, all opinions are mine and mine alone.