The marina promenade at Dubai's Festival City has been described as an up-and-coming part of town. In the future, it may well become the latest restaurant hotspot, a pretender to DIFC's crown if you will. Given the trouble that we encountered trying to find Chi'Zen, the latest Chinese restaurant to open there, that seems a while away though.
I can only guess that others had encountered similar logistical problems, because when we arrived on Saturday night the place was all but deserted, with only one other couple dining. The interior of the restaurant, which is marketed as high-end Cantonese, is sleek and modern, with a red and black theme throughout. Following the advice of the staff, we opted to sit outside on the terrace. The view from here is very pleasant, but the gaudy lights and blaring music coming from a funfair in the immediate vicinity rather detracted from the classy, exclusive mood that Chi'Zen strives to create.
The menu covers a wide range of traditional and more modern dishes and we began with a selection of dim sum. These little plates ranged from the very good to the unremarkable, without anything really dazzling. Har gau were served hot and fresh. The wrappers were shiny and translucent and the shrimps plump and meaty. But that was it. To transform the dumplings into something special they needed a hit of unami flavour courtesy of some soy or oyster sauce or a nice textual crunch from finely minced spring onions.
BBQ chicken bau (steamed buns) seemed, to me at least, unconventionally large. I found them much too doughy, with not enough filling. Chicken spring rolls were fine; the pastry was golden and flaky with a satisfying crunch but again, the filling was unremarkable and we couldn't taste any chicken. On inspection, the white meat was there, it had just been cut into tiny pieces and was indistinguishable from the vegetables. The shredded turnip dim sum was my favourite thing about the whole meal. Thin slithers of soft white turnip had been slow cooked so that they took on a melting sweetness, before being wrapped in a buttery, wonderfully light pastry casing.
My friend ordered the half Peking duck for his main course. Our waitress carved the meat at the table, first removing the golden brown, perfectly crisp skin, which she arranged on a platter. Pancakes, batons of cucumber and spring onion and a dark, treacly hoisin sauce then arrived. She asked how he would like the rest of his duck meat cooked and he opted for fried with garlic and ginger. The meat was taken away and we set about enjoying the pancakes.
The next two dishes were both disappointing, but for different reasons. My main course of scallops with apple and XO sauce was just not up to scratch. The portion consisted of at least six or seven scallops, which is certainly generous, if a little overwhelming. Regardless of this, they tasted gritty and had a rubbery texture, suggesting that they'd been cooked for too long. Pieces of apple (included I imagine as a tart foil to the scallops) were utterly tasteless.
But it was my friend's main course that was the real shame, particularly after the success of the pancakes. The duck meat had been diced and cooked with garlic and ginger, as requested. Unfortunately, the chef had also added lots of raw red chilli. I don't mean that he'd sprinkled a few pieces over the top as a garnish, rather that the plate was rife with red flecks which were difficult to avoid. This made it very hot indeed. And not in a pleasant, slight tingling at the back of the mouth kind of way. It scorched the throat and forced us to gulp our water, making the dish impossible to enjoy. His plate was left largely untouched, which was a horrible waste. Even the most ardent chilli lover would have struggled to finish this and there was no mention of the inclusion of the ingredient at any point- not on the menu nor when the order was taken.
Duck main course not withstanding, the food at Chi'Zen wasn't bad at all. However, given its location, I'm not sure it's quite good enough to lure the customers in and pitted against the big guns in Chinese fine dining (Hakkasan and the Noble House) Chi'Zen falls some way short.
A meal for two at Chi'Zen, Festival City Pavilion, costs Dh402 not including service. For reservations call: 04 232 9077. Reviewed meals are paid for by The National and reviews are conducted incognito.