“Does the capital really need another Chinese restaurant?” was the question put to the owner of the latest Chinese eatery in town.
His response: “Most Chinese places here are very serious affairs. We wanted to bring together the informality of a cafe setting and combine it with Chinese food.”
On the face of it, The Chinese Cafe in Jinnah Super Market ticks all the right boxes. There is a wide variety of staple Chinese dishes and all your perennial favourites – from chicken chilli dry to kung pao chicken – are on offer.
The cafe’s main unique selling point is that it offers ‘single serving’ portions as compared to the ‘family servings’ offered by most places that serve Chinese cuisine. “We want that people who come in for lunch from their offices should be able to order, eat and leave, all within 45 minutes," says co-owner Raja Sharoze
The atmosphere is also comfortable; couches abound and the multi-storey layout is peppered with stocked bookshelves, which gives the restaurant a homely feel.
Yasir Mehboob Abbasi, the owner, boasts that this is “Pakistan’s first cafe serving Chinese food” – a tall claim whose veracity is suspect at best. But there is no getting around the fact that this cafe does things a bit differently from most oriental establishments.
The cafe’s main unique selling point, as Mr Abbasi’s partner Raja Sharoze points out, is that they offer ‘single serving’ portions as compared to the ‘family servings’ offered by most places that serve Chinese cuisine.
“We want that people who come in for lunch from their offices should be able to order, eat and leave, all within 45 minutes. It’s easier on the pocket and more efficient at the same time,” he explains.
Although not everything on the entire menu is available in ‘single servings’, there is a reasonable selection of soups and entrees, such as Szechuan chicken, beef chilli dry and a couple of Thai curries, which are all served with a selection of rice or noodles.
The other thing that sets the restaurant apart from its peers is their dim sum hi-tea, a Chinese-style mezzeh that features assorted dumplings and fried wontons, satay and sweet buns. Served between 4pm to 7pm everyday and prices at around Rs1,200 per head, this is a good option for those who eat lunch late in the afternoon.
But scratch beneath the surface and the cracks begin to show; the food is standard fare and nothing in the menu really stands out.
But having opened in Ramazan, the outlet hasn’t really had time to really spread its wings. Of course, this means that things can only get better, but so far, the entrees are all the same dishes you would find in most other Chinese outlets and save for a unique Crab option among the soups, there is little to really excite the taste buds.
When asked about their signature dish, something that is unique to The Chinese Cafe, both owners remained tight-lipped. “We still haven’t put it on the menu yet,” said Mr Sharoze, coyly. Even Mr Abbasi only hinted that it would be a seafood-related, but did not divulge any details.
The menu itself is a mixed bag; among the starters, the dynamite shrimp lacked any punch, while the sesame beef was on the money. As a rule, it is best to stick to more tried and tested dishes than to be experimental with a menu such as this one.
The hi-tea, however, sounds (and tastes) like a good deal. The drinks and desserts also offer a greater variety than one would find on offer elsewhere, a sign that the establishment takes its cafe credentials seriously.
But if you do end up visiting the cafe, do not peer too closely at the books on display; you may end up spotting textbooks on management, medicine and history in the same shelf!
“We stocked the cafe with some of our own books, while others we bought. We’re going to restock our shelves soon too,” Mr Abbasi said when asked about the mismatched variety of literature on display.
Originally published in Dawn, June 19th, 2017