ISLAMABAD: It has long been established that authentic Chinese cuisine, especially Cantonese food, is not really suited to the Pakistani palate.
This is why many of the most popular Chinese restaurants specialise in primarily Schezuan cuisine and have had to make their food decidedly desi to win favour – and flavour – with local restaurant-goers.
But if you’re fed up with the oriental food on offer in the capital, you may want to take a trip down to Lok Virsa, where the premises of the erstwhile Virsa Cafe have – in homage to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor – been taken over by Heng Chang.
The popular Chinese restaurant may have relocated to Lok Virsa from its old perch in F-7, but it has lost none of its charm. If anything, the change of scenery is a welcome one, with the Shakarparian Forest providing a rich, green backdrop for an afternoon meal.
“I can taste the food with my eyes,” Heng Chang's manager says. “Until my eye accepts it, I don’t allow food to be sent to the tables.”
The layout is spacious and comfortable with several windows looking out onto the Lok Virsa grounds. When booking a table, getting a window seat should be the order of the day.
There are even private dining halls for parties and formal occasions and the venue is available for private functions for those who can afford that kind of thing.
The menu is vast, as is the case with most Chinese places, but the trick is in knowing what to order. Every meal must begin with soup and Heng Chang’s Special Soup is the way to go. A clear soup with thinly sliced vegetables, black mushrooms, prawns, shrimp and chicken, this appetising starter is guaranteed to set the tone for any meal that may follow.
Mohammad Sultan, the outlet manager, is a soft-spoken and well-heeled veteran of the hospitality industry. “I can taste the food with my eyes,” he says when asked if he is involved in the culinary process. “Until my eye accepts it, I don’t allow food to be sent to the tables,” he says with a reassuring smirk.
Mr Sultan is also quite knowledgeable about the technical requirements of running a restaurant. “One has to be really careful, especially when buying seafood. It must look and smell fresh and feel firm to the touch. If any of those criteria aren’t met, we won’t buy it.”
Apart from the staple Chicken Manchurian and Kung Pao, the menu features an array of delicious dishes, hiding behind some unsuspecting names. The first of these is the crispy beef with sesame seeds, made in sesame oil. Made from portions of undercut meat, this sticky and slightly sweet dish is one of the best items on the menu. One can seldom go wrong with the varieties of seafood on offer here, with prawns and shrimp galore.
However, for a decidedly authentic Chinese taste, there is no choice better than the Sweet and Sour Fish. Cooked just like they do it in Beijing, succulent pieces of glazed fried fish are married with a thick, sweet-and-savoury Manchurian sauce. Served with capsicum and tomato, this dish is a joy to look at and an even bigger joy to taste.
The dynamite shrimp, unlike the trademarked PF Chang’s version, are coated in the chef’s own signature horseradish and Tabasco dressing and have the signature Wasabi kick that most people who crave Chinese food are familiar with.
One of the standout items on the menu is the Chinese barbeque section. From here, the BBQ Prawns are definitely worth writing home about. Marinated and then barbequed over glowing coal, slathered with sauces such as Worcestershire, HP and BBQ, these prawns are served with a generous slab of lime to squeeze over them.
Surprisingly, the vegetarian options on the menu are also worthwhile, especially the mixed vegetable with garlic or mushroom. There are Tofu dishes as well, but these are served with minced chicken or beef. However, those who prefer not to eat meat can request an all-veggie version as well.
Dumplings, as any self-respecting foodie will tell you, are the true test of a Chinese restaurant’s mettle. But unless you’re desperate for your carbohydrate fix, you may want to curb your enthusiasm for dumplings while ordering, no matter how tempting they look.
Originally published in Dawn, March 7th, 2016