P.F. Chang's @ Dubai Mall

September 21, 2015

American Chinese cuisine might not sound like the most appealing or assuring concept for purists and conservatives who've been raised on recipes that are closer to their traditional roots. It's a challenge that the U.S.-based, Asian-themed P.F. Chang chain could struggle with in markets like Malaysia, where customers have no shortage of Chinese eateries at every price point.

P.F. Chang's Dubai Mall outpost showcases a sleek, stylish sophistication, with dimmed lighting and elegant flourishes that make this look more like, say, a contemporary Thai tapas bar than a den for Chinese food (the first hint of its true nature comes from the imposingly out-sized terracotta horse at the entrance). The open kitchen supplies a sense of energetic bustle, while the servers seem knowledgeably enthusiastic and commandingly assertive in their food & beverage recommendations.

The menu is conveniently categorised into starters, soups, poultry, beef, seafood, vegetarian offerings, noodles and rice - the variety is diverse, but as we ate each dish, a consistent flavour profile emerged with a vigour that became repetitive. Sweet-savoury, sweet-savoury, sweet-savoury, a pattern interrupted by streaks of spiciness every now and then. It's fine for one or two dishes, but becomes dangerously close to cloying if you're ordering more than just the chicken lettuce wraps (Dhs44) and dynamite shrimp (Dhs47) - you may contend with what seems like gastronomic deja vu when the Mongolian beef (Dhs71) and wok-charred beef (Dhs71) arrive. Orange peel features prominently on the menu, but even the orange peel shrimp was saturated in a sauce with similar-to-the-others dynamics - insufficiently representative of the broad Chinese culinary range.

We decided not to duck the duck - P.F. Chang's VIP Duck offers a feast of fowl, with thigh and breast meat that's been steamed, then finished on the grill, served with julienned scallions and sesame vinaigrette (Dhs85) - it's a dish that seems intended to evoke the flavoursome succulence of Peking Duck, but again, the seasoning was heavy-handed and bordered on overbearing, blocking the natural flavours & purity of the meat from shining. Get some edamame, laced with touches of orange & ginger, for a palate cleanser. On a positive note, portions here are excellent for sharing.

Occasionally, this robust intensity works - the fillet of sea bass marinated in steeped oolong tea & ginger, served on a bed of wok-tossed spinach (Dhs134), might taste more like a Japanese establishment's miso-marinated cod, but it's a harmonious pairing of a rich taste with a decadent texture. The menu declares that many people believe this is P.F. Chang's best dish; we see no reason to disagree. Fans of fish might also want to investigate the ahi tuna, seared medium-rare, tossed with chilli-lime dressing, served with baby arugula and wasabi guacamole (an intriguing Japanese-Mexican hybrid), one of multiple recipes here that stray from the Chinese cookbook - you'll also find Asian favourites like Thai pad thai and Vietnamese skewers.

P.F. Chang's isn't scared of spices - the Dan Dan Noodles (Dhs48) features egg noodles topped with ground chicken that can prove fiery (the kitchen is able to accommodate requests for different levels of heat); note that the noodles are tossed at the table-side for fun theatrics. Spice also makes a mark in chicken dishes like Chang's Spicy Chicken and Dali Chicken. P.F. Chang's proclaims that many of its dishes are cooked in woks with a 900-degree Fahrenheit flame to deliver smoky flavours and crisp textures, though the results here might suffer in comparison to the 'wok hei' that Malaysians are well-accustomed to.

Desserts & drinks drive off with distinct Western inspirations - piping-hot banana fritters with frosty vanilla ice cream (the fritters might have to endure comparisons with KL's local version, which have a lighter, airier batter) and a massive 'Great Wall' of chocolate cake with choc chips - we gasped when it emerged, since it seems built for six people. And finally, on a positive note, the mocktails here are delicious - they taste almost as good as true-blue cocktails, leaving you on a happy sugar high.

P.F. Chang's, Dubai Mall, Dubai

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