When the restaurant description reads ‘Asian food’, alarm bells tend to ring. It is, after all, a pretty whopping place.
Food though, it seems, brings everything and everyone that little bit closer. You could be eating pelmeni in Siberia one day, then traverse the seven day, 8’986km train ride to China, and enjoy its not too distant cousin jiaozi. Still hungry, you hop on a plane to Japan for a few gyoza, and on the return leg take in Korean mandu, Uzbek chuchvara and end up in Turkey, enjoying some manti. Tens of thousands of miles, abundant cultures; and cuisine a unifying thread which runs through all of them.
And if you don’t fancy racking up all of those miles, instead wanting to compress a continent into one manageable, affordable place, then you could do a lot worse than P.F. Chang’s Asian Table.
Apparently there are over 200 P.F. Chang’s restaurants in the USA alone, but this is the first outpost of the popular bistro brand to land here in the U.K. Sure, you could eat more handsomely in nearby Chinatown, for less, but P.F. Chang’s Asian Table provides a safe, clean dining option with efficiency at its core.
This inaugural branch in the UK is close to Covent Garden, bordering the theatre district, and as such there is an emphasis on pre-theatre dining or recovery from shopping; the smooth, adept service a perfect fit for the demands of the on-the-move customer.
The crowd inside is ever changing, and service is fluid to match. The first hour was spent in the company of an all female dining crowd, drinking cocktails post work or post shopping. On the dot of 9pm, groups of young bearded Muslim men arrived in droves. We soon realised it’s Ramadan, sunset is 8.50 and they were straight in there for iftar, the post sunset meal. P.F. Chang’s makes a lot of being halal – rare for a place with an East Asian bent – and the ever shifting demographic of the crowd highlighted the restaurant’s something-for-everyone approach.
Such a place lives and dies by the smoothness of service; here it’s like silk. Wait staff are incredibly attentive; a few grains of rice escaped from the bowl were swiftly swept away. When a chopstick fell, a replacement was immediately conjured up. And upon seeing us commit a dining table faux pas of fingers in the teeth, P.J. Chang branded toothpicks appeared from nowhere. Smooth stuff indeed.
Although some of the cocktails on offer were just plain bizarre – soy sauce mixer anyone? – the Luck & Fortune (gin, Thai basil, kumquat jam) was excellent, with no evidence of actual jam, the addition of Thai basil bringing real zing and purpose. The Fizu was summery, with a pleasing blend of sparkling sake and fresh cucumber, offering refreshment on a balmy night. House wines clock in around the £20 mark, which is excellent value for, well, anywhere in Central London.
An eclectic menu for an eclectic customer base, with something to please everyone around a packed table. The dynamite shrimp is their signature dish, and people were having it all over the restaurant. The heavy coating of spicy mayo overwhelmed the otherwise tasty shrimp a little, but nonetheless, a good dish. A serving of chicken lettuce wraps was more successful; a tender chicken, mushroom and spring onion mix invited you to fashion your own lettuce wrap; the interaction an enjoyable touch.
For mains, Mongolian beef; tender beef slices with frankly huge spring onions, provided crunch and texture, and worked well, but the caramelised sauce was a little too much of the former, and not enough of the latter. Pepper steak had been marinated thoughtfully, with a pleasing heat and tenderness owing to the process.
The downstairs floor is devoted to P.F. Chang’s ‘Pastry Lab’, where desserts are served at a counter. Perhaps this is inspiration from, or designed for, the American diner stepping out solely with dessert in mind, but it felt slightly out of place here and was sparsely populated. Perhaps a bigger push on social media (their dishes are eminently instagrammable) would help spread the word. The banana spring rolls dreamt up in the lab, however, rounded off the meal pleasingly.
For those wishing to eat well, comfortably and quickly, without having to span a continent or even a capital’s city centre, P.F. Chang’s offers a warm, generous welcome and enjoyable Asian bites. What’s more, you don’t need to worry about bringing your passport.