Shayan: Persian Hospitality With A Lebanese Twist

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Shayan, part of the Al Ghurair Rayhaan by Rotana, is famous for serving an authentic Persian dining experience in the heart of Dubai. It recently relaunched with a new menu, featuring a host of Lebanese introductions to its stellar Persian line-up and I was fortunate enough to be invited to this wonderful event. Food is perhaps one of the things I love photographing most and opportunities like these help awaken the photography beast within me. There’s no harm taking great photos while enjoying good food. right?

So without further ado, I’d let you feast your eyes on these mouth-watering temptations; if something does catch your fancy, head down to Shayan and try it out for yourself.

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Mong Chow: Karachi Gets A Taste of Burma

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Burma is a culture-rich country nestled between India, China, Bangladesh, Laos and Thailand. Their cuisine is as rich as their culture and I have had the pleasure of enjoying some staples and delicacies during my growing years, namely because my grandmother is Burmese. The key components of Burmese cuisine have been greatly influenced by the neighboring country’s eating habits, the most notable being India, China and Thailand. That being said, Burmese cuisine is notably different from any others you might have come across, be it the sublime taste or the rich colorful presentation. A single bite of Burmese can be hot and sweet, salty and sour, crunchy and chewy, all at the same time.

The fact that my grandmother is Burmese doesn’t make me an authority on Burmese cuisine; it does, however, give me a fair idea as to what authentic Burmese cuisine tastes like. I was recently invited to sample some food at Mong Chow, a fairly recent entrant, featuring a relatively obscure (albeit delicious) cuisine, on the Karachi food scene.

The Food

Since Mong Chow is set to open at Ocean Towers, Karachi later this year, the owner, Mrs. Fauzia Maung Khuhro, decided to open the restaurant as a ‘delivery/takeaway’ out of her own kitchen. Her daughter, Ayela Khuhro, is helping her set everything up. The mother-daughter duo invited me to their home last week for some Mong Chow and I was over the moon, as I hadn’t had good Burmese in a long time. As I stepped into the house, I was greeted by Ayela and her dog, which left me a little apprehensive, for obvious reasons. After a brief round of introductions, Ayela led me to a bright reading room of sorts with bookshelves containing priceless tomes by literary giants including Dumas, Wordsworth and Burton. The room greatly lifted my spirits and I was hoping the food would too.

We started off with a Burmese Green Papaya Salad featuring shredded raw papaya garnished with some deep fried onions and garlic, and a dash of finely chopped coriander. I was a bit hesitant to taste this salad mainly because I hate papayas, but I’m glad I tried some. Even though it was a little on the sour/tangy side, I liked it for the crunch and the freshness it had to offer. On the whole, it tasted phenomenal. I’d kill for a bottle of that dressing. I’d rate it a solid 9 on 10.

Burmese Green Papaya Salad

Burmese Green Papaya Salad

Next came the Tofu Salad featuring thin slices of garbanzo bean (besan) tofu with a light peanut-chili dressing topped off with a generous amount of sesame seeds, some fried garlic and chopped cilantro. My mom actually makes a variant of this tofu at home so I had a (tough) benchmark to compare the tofu against. The tofu on its own could have used some seasoning and still had a little bit of the floury smell typical of besan (that you need to burn off), but on the whole, it was a refreshing and filling cold salad. I’d rate it a 7 out of 10.

Tofu Salad

Tofu Salad

After what I had already been served, I was really looking forward to trying the main course, i.e. the Ohn No Khauk Suey. A variation of this dish has been passed on in my family from generation to generation and is, hands down, one of my all-time favorite dishes. Needless to say, I consider myself a bit of a Khauk Suey connoisseur and this was the perfect dish to pass my judgement on.

Ohn No Khauk Suey

Ohn No Khauk Suey

As seen in the image above, Khauk Suey can be a bit intimidating for someone trying it out for the first time, as there are a lot of ingredients that you need to combine to get a platter ideal for YOUR taste-buds. I started off with a generous amount of egg noodles and coconut-chicken curry, and garnished it with some coriander, some boiled egg, some wheat crisps, chili flakes, chili sauce, fish sauce and soy sauce. It took me a good two minutes to prepare the plate and after carefully re-evaluating my decisions, I dug in; the image below shows the final result.

The Final Khauk Suey Platter

The Final Khauk Suey Platter

The first bite transported me back to my grandmother’s kitchen. Everything sung in perfect unison and the effect it had on me cannot be put into words. Needless to say, I enjoyed every single crunchy bite of the dish and even though my stomach was full, my heart yearned for more. I couldn’t help but give this dish a 10 on 10.

The Pricing

A typical Khauk Suey serving with a Papaya salad on the side costs around 570 PKR, which is comparatively lower than what you’d be spending at a restaurant for lunch. The generous portion sizes ensure good value for money and the price is worth every single noodle, no pun intended. Below is a copy of their latest menu.

The Menu

The Menu

The Verdict

In recent years, Karachiites have developed a palette that is more tolerant to other-worldly (there; I said it!) cuisines. If you’ve never had Burmese food in your life, you’re in for a real treat. The dishes perfectly complement the Pakistani flavor profile and are ideal for lunch or dinner. If you feel like trying something different, do give Mong Chow a call and get some piping hot food delivered at your doorstep. This is one restaurant to watch out for and I know it will go places; this is just the beginning of a long and fruitful journey.

My advice to the restaurant owners is to stay consistent and keep serving mouth-watering delicacies; you’ll be living in people’s hearts (and stomachs) for years to come.

Nando’s On A Peri-licious Road To Self-Discovery

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Nando’s needs no introduction. This chain of casual dining restaurants takes Portuguese cuisine to a whole new level and proudly serves the meanest flame-grilled chicken money can buy. Starting in 1987, Nando’s now operates in around 24 countries worldwide and there’s no stopping it. The secret of its success is the uniqueness of its Peri-Peri sauce which is the base for almost everything you eat at Nando’s. What is even more interesting is the fact that Nando’s is a cuisine in its own right. “So what do you want to have today? Chinese, Pakistani, Italian, or Nando’s?”. In other words, Nando’s doesn’t have any direct competitors, at least not in Pakistan, which is a huge advantage for the chain.

I have always been a fan of Nando’s and I commend them on their consistency to provide delicious food, their tastefully decorates restaurants and their witty advertising campaigns. I associate this restaurant with a lot of fond memories and a visit there is always nostalgic. Whether it is getting together with friends after ages or celebrating my wedding anniversary, Nando’s is the best place to be. The fact that I can eat with my hands without being judged doesn’t hurt either.

In an attempt to redefine itself, Nando’s has come up with a revamped menu that incorporates most of the regular favorites while adding a bunch of new items that are sure to take your heart away. I was recently invited at a Blogger’s meetup for the launch of their new menu by my friends at Food Connection Pakistan; the evening was spectacular to say the least.

The Ambiance

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I generally visit the Nando’s that is closest to my place but in this particular instance, I was invited to the Boat Basin restaurant. As I stepped in, I couldn’t help but admire the burst of colors that surrounded me. Everything from the brightly painted wall mural to the art pieces placed all over the restaurant were mesmerizing. I was greeted by a hostess who graciously took me to my table on the first floor. On my way there, I saw some more art pieces that adorned the walls and I felt like I was walking through an art gallery. What made the experience more realistic was the fact that the artists were properly credited; impressive and something worth appreciating.

The Reception

When I approached my table, I could see that my friends were already there and I was the last one in. Ali from the Nando’s team was our host on this culinary journey we were about to embark on. As I shook hands with everyone, a waiter approached me and asked me if I wanted anything to drink. I requested a Portuguese Lemonade without missing a beat.

After we were all seated, Ali revealed the gorgeous new menus that Nando’s had designed. Featuring original artworks from South African artists, these menus are a sight for sore eyes. They are everything that Nando’s is (bright, bold and authentic) and brilliantly capture the essence of the restaurant.

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I told Ali how much I loved the look and feel of this restaurant to which he responded, “Yousuf. We at Nando’s think of our restaurants as museums, where people come to appreciate the creations of up and coming artists. This is our way of celebrating the local culture and the art that originates from here. We curate these pieces from diverse sources including students and community farms. This is what our identity is and this is what we have tried to portray in the new menu design too.”

Next, Ali took us through all the changes and upgrades that had gone into the menu.

“As you can see, we’ve added quite a few things to the menu. There are new entries in the Appeteasers section, namely the Roasted Veg Dip and Altogether Now. We’ve also tried catering to the Chicken Wing lovers by introducing wings as part of our main course. Since people love sharing Nando’s, we’ve added some platters ideal for a group of 2 to 6 people. We’ve incorporated some vegetarian options too, like the Veggie burger/pita sandwich and Caesar salad. To tie it all up, we’ve introduced Corn on The Cob, Fino sides, and Garlic Bread to make your meals even more memorable.”

All this food-talk was making me really hungry and I was sure it was having the same effect on the rest of the diners. What Ali said next was music to my ears.

“To give you a taste of our new offerings, I have taken the liberty of ordering everything for you.”

The Food

The buttery Corn on the cob was the very first treat of the night. As I bit into my ‘mild’ corn, I could sense a conflict between the corn’s natural sweetness (highlighted by the butter) and the spice from the peri-peri sauce, the sweet overpowering the spice by miles. Sensing the lack of heat and the fact that I always use the ‘hot’ peri-peri, I drizzled a few drops onto the corn and took another bite. What resulted was an explosion of taste that is hard to define in words and the combination couldn’t have been more intense. I enjoyed the rest of the corn and regretfully moved on to the next dish; a solid 9 out of 10 for me.

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Next came the Altogether Now platter, featuring a bowl of Olives, Hummus, and Roasted Vegetable Dip served with Pita Bread. The hummus, as always, was very tasty but the roasted veg dip failed to impress me much as it was a bit under-seasoned. A 7 out of 10 for me on this one.

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The Caesar Salad was a revelation. Featuring fresh lettuce leaves with a surprisingly refreshing Caesar dressing, croutons and Parmesan cheese, this dish managed to steal my heart. I would have liked a little more cheese but maybe that’s just me. I’d have it any day of the week and I’d rate this a solid 10 on 10.

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Then came the warm aromatic Garlic Bread with grill marks. I couldn’t help myself comparing this with my favorite garlic bread. Even though this bread was fresh and tasted great, I really missed that strong garlicky flavor that it is supposed to have. A reasonable 7 out of 10 for the Garlic Bread.

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Fino is Portuguese for ‘posh’ and this is the feeling these sides are supposed to evoke. While the Grilled Veg featured on the right side fail to deliver this feeling, the Sweet Potato Mash on the left hit the ‘posh’ out of the park. Nando’s redefines the concept of ‘mash’ by presenting these cinnamon-flavored chunks of sweet potato with a drizzle of your desired peri-peri heat. The sweetness hits you first when you pop a chunk into your mouth. As it progresses down the tongue, the sour, salty and spicy profiles of the potato hit you and it is suddenly transformed from ‘just a potato’ to a tantalizing delicacy. Just sitting here writing about it makes me want to rush to Nando’s and get a fix. Whereas the Grilled Veg was a disappointing 5, the Mash gets a 10 out of 10 from me.

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For the main course, we were offered a selection of one of their breaded options. We could either go for a wrap, a burger or a pita sandwich. As the other two options were Veg and Aubergine-Chicken (I hate Aubergines), I went for a basic grilled chicken breast fillet in a pita. My other friends ordered the same in burger or wrap form. The only exception was Ali, who went for the Aubergine version in a burger. I had ordered my main course with a side of wedges and I dove into them as soon as the platter was placed in front of me. The wedges, as always, were crisp on the outside, tantalizingly soft on the inside. The Pita, however, was a different story. For some reason, I have never found good Pita in Pakistan and the one being served at Nando’s is no exception. While the filling in the pita was outstanding, the Pita itself was thick, damp, and soggy, owing to the absorption of all the tasty juices from the filling; I wish I would have tried the wrap or the burger variant but it was too late and I was too full. I gave the pita sandwich an 8 on 10; had the pita been thin and dry, I would have gladly bumped it up to a 10.

When Ali offered dessert, we politely declined; if I say ‘No’ to the Nando’s chocolate cake, I have to be really REALLY full.

The Verdict

Restaurants willing to re-discover themselves and open to incorporate customer feedback are truly appreciated. Nando’s has done just that and I must say it is a bold and exciting initiative. Even though I miss the old hard-bound menu that had these ‘one-liners’ Nando’s is famous for, I’m impressed by what they have done to the menu. As with any change, there are a few hits and a few misses, but in this particular case, Nando’s delivers most of these with a bang.

As for the pricing, there are some items on the menu that fail to deliver value for money, for instance the Caesar Salad and the Grilled Veg, but overall, Nando’s pricing is consistent with a lot of other fine dining restaurants across Pakistan. A per-head cost comes up to around 600 to 800 PKR per person which is slightly expensive, but worth what you get in terms of taste. Everything tastes good with Peri-Peri and the sauce is a permanent entry on my grocery list. If  you want to get a taste of what Nando’s has to offer, I recommend you get some of their sauce and try making something around it. 

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Finally, I’d like to thank the entire Nando’s team for having us over and sharing this evening with us. The team was exceptional, professional and made sure we all had a great time!

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A Trip Down Memory Lane: Pizza Hut, Boat Basin

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You never forget your first time.

It was 1994 and I remember driving out to Boat Basin with my uncle for a revolutionary new delicacy; he just couldn’t stop talking about it. As he parked the car at Pizza Hut (read ‘pee-zaa hut’), I couldn’t help but admire the trendy joint. We didn’t go in though and he ordered some to go. As we sat in the car, he opened the mysterious flat box and let me inhale the intoxicating aroma emanating from it. Even though my sense of smell was enticed, my sight wasn’t all that impressed. I couldn’t be impolite to my uncle, and as an avid cheese and vegetable hater back in those days, I had to fight an inner battle before picking up a slice. It was pretty difficult prying a slice apart from the rest of the pie namely because of the strands of cheese unwilling to let go of the neighboring slices. I finally did manage to break the slice free and reluctantly took a bite. When you hate something, you tend to notice every little detail. What I tasted was a load of chicken, seemingly infinite amount of cheese, pineapples, mushrooms, and a few things I couldn’t quite put my finger on (paprika, oregano, etc.).

I hated it!

I hated everything about it. I hated the crunch of the vegetables, the sweetness of the pineapples, the chewy texture of the mushrooms, and cheese that stuck to my teeth. Yuck!

In retrospect, that was, and to this day, is the best pizza I’ve ever had. The old Pizza Hut (or ‘PH’) located at Boat Basin was as iconic as the Eiffel Tower, if not more. I cannot enumerate the number of good times I’ve had there. Whether it was hanging out with friends after the end of exams or chilling with the office (read ‘IT’) crowd for a colleague’s birthday party (mufta), waiting to break the Ramadan fast at the all-you-can-eat with the family or just standing in front of the take-away counter to satisfy a midnight craving, PH was the place to be. Weeks, if not months, of prep was required for a coveted visit at PH as I had to save up for it. The pizza was as lavish as they showed in the “Good times with great pizza” advertisement back in the days.

My last trip to Pizza Hut was probably about 8 months back and the memories weren’t all that good, mainly because of the quality of the food (in general) and the diminished quantity of toppings. For obvious reasons, I was a bit reluctant to go when I received an invite for a bloggers’ meet-up at the new Boat Basin outlet but I thought about giving them another chance; maybe this time around, things would be different.

As I drove to the new location opposite Boat Basin, I couldn’t help feeling nostalgic. Even though the old place was comparatively smaller than the new location, it had something that was clearly missing in the new restaurant; maybe it was the relatively difficult access or the slightly off-the-main-boat-basin-food-street location or all the memories associated with the old place, I can’t really say. The new PH is impressive nonetheless and spans over three floors. One great thing about this place is the dedicated parking space for customers, a rarity these days. Once I stepped inside, everything from the wooden tables to the red leather upholstery to the colorful wall art screamed PH. My fellow bloggers and I were whisked away to the exclusive 2nd floor, probably reserved for birthday parties and such, with Pizza Pooch and his gang watching over us while we took our seats.

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The Deal

Since this meetup was to get an honest feedback on the newly launched ‘Weekday Special’ deal, we were asked to choose from one of their personal pan pizzas, a sideline and a drink; this, according to them, is a three-course meal, but last I checked, a drink wasn’t a ‘course’. Nomenclatures aside, this deal sounded pretty good as it came at a very affordable PKR 199+tax pricing. Add another PKR 100 or so and you’d get dessert too. Upon inquiring what my choices were, I was told that I could order from the following:

  • Pizza: Chicken Fajita, Chicken Tikka, or Veggie Lovers 
  • Starters: Soup, Potato Wedges, or Garlic Bread
  • Desserts: (unfortunately, we weren’t offered any)

As I flipped through the pages of the menu, I couldn’t help admiring the immaculately photographed cuisine. From the pizzas to the Chicken Spin Rolls, everything looked too-good-to-be-true. I was particularly impressed by the potato wedges shown on the menu so I decided to go for a 6″ Chicken Fajita pizza with a side of wedges. 

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The wedges came first. I was shocked as I watched the waiter place the platter in front of me. There were six wedges (you read that right, SIX) that looked nothing like those shown on the menu. I decided to try some; they were neither crisp nor seasoned and had a bitter after-taste owing to the slight char on the sides. After my fourth wedge, I remembered I had to photograph the platter as well, so I took a photo of the two remaining wedges. In retrospect, I should have ordered the garlic bread as it is one of those things PH delivers with consistency (the second one being the salad).

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Then came the pizza, accompanied by a glass of the ‘third course’ (sarcastic much?). After what I had seen on the menu, I was a little disappointed with the amount of topping. The cheese content was relatively low and I counted between five and six 1 cm3 chicken cubes on my pizza. The taste was really OK, nothing fireworks-in-the-sky spectacular. I’d probably rate this a 6.5 out of 10.

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As a special treat, the folks at PH decided to serve Garlic Bread Platters. With three different cheesy toppings, these delectable slices of bread offered fimiliarity and comfort. Those were probably the best things I tasted all evening.

The Verdict

With a humble beginning in the early 90’s, Pizza Hut has grown to be one of the largest international food chains in Pakistan. My personal feelings for PH aside, this deal, on the whole, is pretty neat for the price it’s being offered at and is ideal for a lunch on a weekday. I’d suggest you avoid the wedges and go for the garlic bread instead, which is much more satisfying.

As with every blog, I do have my two bits to say to the PH management. I am well-aware that managing the quality and consistency of your product across so many outlets can pose serious challenges, but that’s what people pay you for. If you charge an-arm-and-a-leg for a pie that is not as good as ‘advertised’, people will go to the many alternates that have sprung-up across Karachi over the recent years.

 Oh, how I’d give anything to travel back to 1994 for a second slice of my first-ever pizza. Those really were good times and that really was great pizza. Try as I might, I cannot forget my first time.

Ginsoy’s Extreme Make-over

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For far too long have a few ‘Pioneer’ Chinese restaurants monopolized the Karachi oriental scene. Don’t get me wrong; I have always admired them for their trend-setting ways, their innovative, albeit overpriced, menus and their personalized spin on Pak-Chinese cuisine. There have, however, been a few entrants in recent years that have given these pros a run for their money, and then some. Hello, Ginsoy!

Ginsoy has been serving mouthwatering Chinistani (it was either this or Pakinese) since January 2012 and has developed a cult following, myself included; this is not only for the exciting tastes this restaurant has to offer, but also for the value-for-money you get there. Ask any of Ginsoy’s regular customers what they feel about the restaurant, and the three words that you are most likely to hear are, “Reserve In Advance!” Such is the popularity of this joint and having been denied the chance to sample their cuisine on more than one occasion myself is pure torture. Luckily, for all Ginsoy-a-holics, the restaurant’s going through an Extreme Makeover. Err, well, this is not a makeover per se, rather a nice addition to the already overcrowded packed-to-the-rafters dining area, and rightly so. Enter Ginsoy Extension!

Located a few doors down the original Ginsoy location, this extension is a rather intelligent move on the restaurateurs’ part. Generally, a restaurant this size requires months, if not years, of planning, but shockingly, this restaurant was created in a little over 20 days, which is virtually unheard of in the restaurant world. With quite a few celebrities from the cooking world sitting around me, I felt honored to be part of their inauguration a few days back and had a jolly good time with my friends at Food Connection Pakistan.

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The Reception/Ambience (8 out of 10)

Whenever you visit a restaurant that is an extension (or a branch) of the original, you are bound to compare them with each other, and I’m no exception. Personally, I rather prefer the light refreshing feel of the extension over the dark subtle feel of the original place. The immaculate tables are set extremely close to each other; you cannot help but overhear every word of the conversation taking place on the table next to/behind you. I do, however, applaud the effort to optimally utilize the limited space that the restaurant offers. I could probably live without the music playing in the foreground (I mean, background) as the restaurant tends to get quite rowdy (in a good way) when packed. Overall, I rather enjoyed the upbeat vibe the place exudes, ergo an 8 out of 10.

Inaugurations can be larger-than-life affairs and the extension’s was no exception. I did get to meet one of the owners, Hassan Baweja and it was a delight seeing someone as young and exuberant as him running the show (rather efficiently). As usual, I would have loved to do a one-on-one interview with him, but the overcrowded place prevented me from doing so. He did, however, give a mini-speech of sorts so I’ll try as best as I can to put his words into this post.

“We cannot thank our customers enough for the overwhelming response we’ve gotten from them since we opened about a year back. Our main focus has always been on providing quality food at a good price. Unfortunately, we were unable to cater to a lot of our customers because of the space restriction at Ginsoy. My uncle, who’s also my business partner, and I had been trying to work out this space constraint until we finally came up with the idea of Ginsoy Extension.

Why ‘Extension’? Well, we could have called this restaurant Ginsoy 2 but that sounded a bit cliché. Since this was an expansion of the original restaurant, the ‘Extension’ suffix suited perfectly. Why so close to the original restaurant? We wanted to keep a strong hold on our quality and taste, and management-wise, it seemed like a wise decision. What’s more is that our loyal clients won’t mind walking a few steps to the Extension if they don’t find a place at the original Ginsoy. People have grown to like and appreciate the ‘desi’ taste that we have to offer and we would hopefully be able to cater to most of our customers.

What you see here today is the result of our tireless efforts we’ve put into this place for the last 20 days. Yes, you heard it right. We got this place up and running in approximately 20 days. This place was occupied by a restaurant before we took over, so the space was already there but we still needed to create our own vibe. Alhamdolillah, we were successful in finishing this project and we look forward to serving great cuisine to many more of our customers simultaneously.”

The Food (9 out of 10)

Having tried quite a few of Ginsoy’s dishes on my previous culinary escapades, I tried ordering food I had not tasted thus far. While we were waiting for our order, a waiter came out with a platter full of assorted appetizers, featuring Fried Chicken Wontons, Butterfly Prawns and what looked like Spring Rolls (I really couldn’t tell). Since the platter was all out of rolls before I could get one, I’ll stick my comments to just the other two starters.

The Butterfly Prawn was one of the best I have ever had. Flattened, crumb-coated and deep fried to a golden crisp, these crunchy delicacies packed a powerful punch with just the right amount of spices. I could have gladly eaten all of them had I not been in the company of friends; moments like these make morals and etiquette seem so overrated. I gave Ginsoy a 10 on 10 for this brilliant dish!

The tortellini-shaped Fried Chicken Wontons were a major disappointment. With a chickpea-sized chicken filling, the flavor of the phyllo pastry overshadowed the taste of the chicken and rendered the whole thing bland, the only saving grace being the sweet tomato-chili sauce served on the side; a disappointing 4 out of 10.

I was so busy feasting myself on the prawns that I forgot to take the photograph of the platter; the rest of the meal, however, has been documented in detail for your drooling pleasure.

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Golden Deep Fried Finger Fish

Our order was delivered after a customary 25-minute wait, and the first starter that was placed in front of us was the Golden Deep Fried Finger Fish. These crispy fingers of perfectly cooked fish, served with a sweet tomato-chili sauce were extremely delicious, despite having very subtle flavors. What made the fish more interesting was the coarse coating on top, owing to the use of fresh bread crumbs. This gave the dish a very rustic/homey feel as compared to the pretentiously perfect fingers served at other restaurants; a solid 9 out of 10 for me. I could have probably done away with the sauce as the fish tasted pretty amazing on its own.

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Thai Beef Satay with Peanut Sauce

The Thai Beef Satay with Peanut Sauce could have been a better dish, had it been a little less oily. Also, the flavors were really one-note and the meat wasn’t as tender as I would have liked. The peanut sauce looked extremely unappetizing as it showcased a thick layer of oil on top. I have started appreciating food with sweeter profiles and I really wanted to love the satay too; unfortunately, I could only come up with a 6 out of 10 on my satisfaction meter.

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Original Orange Chicken

The Original Orange Chicken is a Ginsoy specialty and came with a glowing recommendation from one of my friends. The presentation was sloppy at best and it was extremely difficult to get into the orange-cups with the serving spoon accompanying the dish. In all fairness, I decided to look past the presentation and boy was I rewarded. This right here is Ginsoy at its best; the tender pieces of chicken lathered in an exquisite orange-based (or should I say kinoow-based) gravy, sweet yet tangy, blew my mind away. I couldn’t help but give this dish a solid 10, solely on the taste; otherwise, it would have been a very reluctant 8.

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Tamarind Fish with Chili Sauce

I was a little skeptical about digging into the Tamarind Fish with Chili Sauce because I didn’t really want to eat what could supposedly be a sour tangy mess. Leave it to Ginsoy to metamorphose unconventional ingredients into a delightful dish, and this was no exception. Amazingly, the crispy deep fried fish hadn’t lost its crunch even after sitting in the tamarind sauce for almost 10 minutes. The slight tang of the tamarind fused with the underlying sweet taste (could have been honey or brown sugar) went well with the generous garnish of green chilies. What I liked most though was the fact that this dish was served with a side of rice, unlike all other gravies. It deserved nothing less than a 10 and was, hands down, THE best dish I had tasted all night.

Beef Chowmein

Beef Chow Mein

I was hoping to end the meal on a high note as I plated the last dish of the evening, i.e. Beef Chow Mein, but that wasn’t the case. Even though the noodles were good, they weren’t the best I had had. The dish predominantly tasted of soy sauce, could have used more seasoning, and garnered a mere 6.5 out of 10 from me.

The Pricing (9 out of 10)

When you first glance at their menu, Ginsoy’s prices might seem a bit steep, but the portion sizes fairly compensate for them. An average meal costs around PKR 700 to 800 plus tax per person, and from personal experience, you even get to bring home a few leftovers.

The Verdict

In all fairness, I based my review on my overall perception of Ginsoy rather than focusing on the meal I had had at the inauguration. There are a few other dishes that I’d highly recommend; Cherry Chili Chicken, Crispy Fish in Sticky Red Sauce, Stuffed Chilies and Prawn Balls.

I also have a few suggestions that the management can follow:

  • Managing two kitchens can be a daunting task, especially when people expect to get the same flavors at two different places. Ensure that you serve the same great food consistently and you will have much longer queues at your front desk than you already have.
  • Keep getting feedback from your customers and incorporate that in your decision-making. That will help you go a long way.
  • The restaurants are crammed to maximum capacity. Reevaluate the seating and try finding a way to improve it optimally.
  • Where most restaurants go wrong is with the pricing of their food; they fail to balance what they serve with what they charge. When revising your prices, keep in mind how it would impact your loyal customer-base; a slight error can result in a major loss of goodwill.
  • The wooden fixture that has been placed at the top of the staircase causes a lot of problems, especially when several people are navigating the narrow space simultaneously. You really don’t need that.

The world’s a changin’ and so is our palate. We now favor more authentic flavors and are capable of appreciating rare (even outlandish) ingredients. Seeing Ginsoy’s popularity and the fact that the restaurant prides itself on serving desi Chinese confirms this hypothesis. From fried calamari to Cantonese lobster, classic crab to Mopu tofu, Ginsoy has something for everyone (in case you were STILL wondering, they serve chicken and beef too). Needless to say, it hits it out of the park with everything from the tempting flavors to the affordable pricing. With the space issue seemingly resolved (for now) too, we Ginsoy-a-holics can finally say what we have always wanted to say (in three words); “I’m lovin’ it” (no offense, Mr. Ronald).

The Lantern: Lighting Up Karachi, Orientally

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The power of oriental cuisine is undeniable; we just can’t seem to get enough of it. When out with your wife, ask her what she’d like to eat and 5 out of 10 times, she’d suggest Chinese. Those garlicky flavors infused with chilies and other local spices cater to our more ‘refined’ Pakistani palates (open for interpretation), and are all the rage these days. I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with giving a cuisine a ‘desi’ spin, as long as it is in good taste and doesn’t spiral out of control (if you catch my drift). Luckily for those of us who have grown to love this style of cooking, there have been some interesting entrants in Karachi’s ever-burgeoning restaurant scene over the past couple of years.

The Lantern, located near Do Talwar, Clifton, has been open for public for about four weeks now, and the team at Food Connection Pakistan graciously invited me for a bloggers’ meet-up a few days back. This Chinese eatery is a perfect venue for a memorable lunch with friends or a romantic dinner with the wife. It’s interesting that the restaurant has indoor as well as outdoor seating available, catering to the conditioned air lovers as well as customers who enjoy basking in the trademark Karachi breezes.

The Ambiance (9 out of 10)

As soon as you walk onto the driveway that leads up to the restaurant, you are welcomed by a rustic sitting area adorned by wooden chairs and tables. A collection of plants placed at intervals as well as along walls render the space homey and unpretentious, yet tasteful. Besides letting in plenty of natural light, a big glass window lets people on the outside a view of what’s going on inside.

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A step indoors and you instantly get where the inspiration for the restaurant’s name comes from. Your eye is immediately drawn to the paper lanterns covering the entire length of the ceiling and not one of them is red. In stark contrast to traditional Chinese restaurants, the room feels open, light and airy, with everything decorated in greens and subdued pastels. More often than not, I prefer well-lit spaces where I can clearly see what I’m putting into my mouth, and The Lantern sure fits the bill. The next thing you end up checking out is the wall at the back, showcasing a vertical bamboo garden of sorts, bringing in a little bit of the warmth and freshness that the outside exudes. The wooden tables are laden with immaculate cutlery, chopsticks (for the more adventurous souls), and actual cloth napkins instead of the paper cop-outs; a quality restaurant should be able to manage their laundry.

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The Reception

It was interesting to meet the visionaries behind the restaurant; Gulraiz, Saud, Uzair and Ahsan (collectively known as the A-Team). These four individuals went their separate ways after completing their A-levels and converged several years later to solemnize their bond of friendship through the inception of The Lantern. The A-Team started off with an idea of opening up a tea-house/cafe, something on the lines of Samovar Tea House at Port Grand (owned by Gulraiz and his Austrian friend Matthias Gattermeier), but looking at the recent trends, Uzair thought a Chinese restaurant would be a better idea. Since Uzair has a family background in event management and catering, they decided to take up his suggestion.

Yousuf: What was the inspiration behind the name?

A-Team: Well, we just tried out a few names including the Wok-Inn, Red Door and Paper Lantern. Since we wanted the place to feel as un-Chinese as possible, we ended up with ‘The Lantern’. We carried the same un-Chinese theme into our decor as well, the only inspirations being bamboo shoots and paper lanterns. If you look closely, you’ll see that the lanterns used in the restaurant are plain paper lanterns and not the bright-red Chinese lanterns with tassels underneath. Also, the table settings are very rustic and lack the oriental touch.

Yousuf: Don’t you think there are enough Chinese restaurants already?

A-Team: In our experience, Karachiites love Chinese food as much as they love BBQ, if not more. Plus, there are very few Chinese restaurants in the Clifton/Defense area so opening one here seemed like a wise decision.

Our service is another area where we can distinguish ourselves from our competition. Unlike other restaurants, we take customized orders and have no qualms preparing anything that can be made within the confines of our kitchen. If we have the ingredients, we’ll make it for you; if a specific dish is served with Beef but you prefer Chicken, we’ll do it for you. A couple of days back, a customer requested some vegetables with oyester sauce and we served it to him; he really appreciated this gesture and we won over a loyal customer. We are not reinventing the wheel here, just trying to elevate conventional chinese cuisine to a whole new level.

Yousuf: What are the team dynamics here? How do you get along with your staff?

A-Team: The average age of our staff is about 23 years, so we have a very young team, open to improvement and evolution. We come here to work and have fun. We are not rigid, rather ready to adopt new ideas with time, learning, trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Our team has provided a lot of feedback and ideas into what you are seeing around you at the moment.

Yousuf: So what are your plans for the future?

A-Team: Well, there are a few things that we’d love to take care of down the line. First and foremost, we’d love to add a few exotic items to our menu, including Duck. Next, we plan to open a second kitchen that will cater to home delivery orders only; the existing one is running on full capacity for dine-in orders.

Food (7.5 out of 10)

The Lantern’s menu is deceptively simple and elegant, yet it manages to cater to vegetarians as well as non-vegetarians (seafood, chicken or beef aficionados). Believe me; I have seen Chinese restaurant menus that are the size of a full-length novella, some even daring to span over 8 pages. In my experience, the larger the menu, the harder it is to decide what to order. For the restaurant owners, a complex menu may make it difficult for them to maintain consistency in what their kitchen is producing.

The menu features several dishes with a ‘gravy optional’ choice; personally, dry items are more appealing to me as that way, you cannot camouflage the taste of the dish behind a veil of sauces. This is a daring move on the chef’s part as he needs to have a lot of confidence in his cooking, and his ability to create food that is appealing to his customers.

After careful evaluation of the menu, I decided to skip the cliché soup and go straight for the appetizers; talk about challenging the norms of our society. On Gulraiz’s suggestion, I ordered some Deep Fried Chili Prawns, served with sautéed Thai chilies and spring onions, a garnish of julienne vegetables and some oriental sauce on the side. This was perhaps the most Pakistanized of all the dishes I tried that night, and I totally mean that in a good way. The prawns, infused with chili, were crisp and spicy, OK on their own but a revelation with that exquisite honey-based oriental sauce. The balance of sweet and spicy, and the aroma that emanated from the platter was extremely appealing to me; I’d go to the Lantern any given day just for that dish. The extra chilies added for presentation were overkill but otherwise, I rate the dish a solid 9 (out of 10).

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Deep Fried Chili Prawns

Sesame Prawns on Toast, another appetizer that came highly recommended by the A-Team, was by far my least favorite dish of the evening. It’s a chunky prawn paste buttered onto a piece of toast, topped with a generous sprinkle of sesame seeds and deep fried to a crisp. The texture of the toast was extremely interesting; what really put me off was the oil-soaked bread and the overpowering sesame flavor, the prawns feeling like an afterthought instead of being the highlight of the dish. I suggest you make sure the bread is nice and oil-free, cut down on the sesame seeds and let the taste of the prawn shine. I’d give this a slightly disappointing 6.

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Sesame Prawns on Toast

Then came the entrees and I started off with Beef with Black Bean sauce. This is one of those dishes that grow on you; the first few bites were really OK, but the more I ate it, the more I liked it, so much so that I gave it a solid 8 on 10. The taste of the black beans really shines through and even though the dish is a little on the sweet side, it certainly is one that you’d probably order next time you visit The Lantern.

Beef with Black Bean Sauce

Beef with Black Bean Sauce

When the server brought out what was supposed to be Chicken Chili Dry, I was a bit confused, as it was unlike any I had ever had; it turned out to be an interesting spin on a classic. The chicken chunks, deep fried with a batter coat, covered in a sticky sweet sauce and finished with some green chilies, were extremely crunchy. Even though I was expecting a bit more heat on the dish, the combination, overall, seemed pretty balanced. I’d rate it an 8 out of 10.

Chicken Chili Dry

Chicken Chili Dry

The best presented dish of the night, hands down, was Crispy Beef in Bird’s Nest. I gave it 8 out of 10 mainly because besides being attractive, it delivered on the taste. The deep-fried strips of beef lightly glazed with a sweet chili sauce were crunchy on the outside, tender on the inside, and just seemed to melt in my mouth; I couldn’t stop eating them. I did experience some problems tackling the noodle nest though, as it was really really tough to break into.

Crispy Beef in Bird's Nest

Crispy Beef in Bird’s Nest

After all the excellent food that I had devoured, I barely had any room left for dessert. The team insisted I try the Fried Fruits Candy and I’m glad I did. It featured chunks of banana, kiwi and apple, deep fried to a crisp and served with sugar syrup, some icing sugar, some sesame seeds and a pinch of cocoa powder. Even though the fruit was deep fried, the inside of the fruit had not lost its actual texture, and I salute the chef for this feat. I could have probably put the sugar syrup as a dipping sauce on the side rather than lathering the lovely fruits with it, but that’s just me. It was one of the closest things I had ever had to a Chinese dessert, so I gave it 8.5 out of 10.

Fried Fruits Candy

Fried Fruits Candy

The Pricing (8 out of 10)

A decent meal at The Lantern would cost you anywhere between PKR 1000 to 1500 per person (plus tax), which is very similar to what it would at any decent Chinese restaurant in Karachi. The portions sizes could have been slightly bigger as people invariably end up questioning the value for money.

The Verdict

Eating out is one of the few forms of enjoyment for us entertainment-starved Karachiites, and places like The Lantern make it even more enjoyable. What impresses me more is the young, energetic team putting it’s heart and soul into this restaurant, and is willing to learn and evolve from experience. I try viewing things from a common man’s perspective and here’s what I think The Lantern should do:

  • Traditional Chinese cuisine is all about exploring opposites; sweet with sour, hot with cold, salty with bland. It’s about exploiting the flavors in such a way that you get to experience several dishes in a mouthful. I felt that all the dishes I tried there played with just the ‘sweet and spicy’ profile, which rendered the food there predominantly one-note. The Lantern should probably try playing with other opposite combinations to see what works and what doesn’t.
  • Consistency is key to any successful restaurant; experiment all you want with a dish but be consistent when serving it. Consistent portion sizes, consistent flavor profiles and consistent presentation are key.
  • Revise your pricing and/or portion sizes; everyone demands value for money these days.
  • The menu seems to be missing some popular appetizers that you’d expect to find at Chinese restaurants; try identifying them and do not hesitate to take them on board.

It was a pleasure watching Gulraiz play the gracious host out front, while Uzair was busy expediting orders in the kitchen, making sure every plate that came out was according to his standards. I’m sure with such a dedicated team, the Lantern has the potential to be one of the most sought after Chinese restaurants in Karachi.

A word of advice: If you don’t want a new splatter paint job on your car, avoid parking it under that big ol’ tree on the right side of the entrance; your driver/cleaner is sure to curse you while he puts his blood and sweat into cleaning it the next day.

Burger Inc.: Redefining The All-American Classic

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Karachi (or shall I say, Pakistan?) witnessed what I call a food franchise frenzy (FFF) in the 90’s, when a bunch of international chains decided to grace us with their presence. Out of nowhere, trendy restaurants started popping up all over the place, overshadowing local food chains that just couldn’t compete. While the consumers were happy with a wider food selection, I saw several home-grown restaurants that I had grown up with, fade away into nothingness.

Luckily for us, there are still a few passionate people like Syed Mohammed Ali Raza, who are willing to tread the turbulent waters and make their name in the local fast food scene. Syed Mohammed Ali Raza is the owner of Burger, Inc., a restaurant serving all-American burgers and classic southern fried chicken. I had this opportunity to meet with Ali through my friends at Food Connection Pakistan. Seldom have I come across someone who is this honest, open and straight-forward.

Burger, Inc. is a grab-and-go burger joint located in the posh DHA area in Karachi and I had the pleasure of visiting it a few days back. As soon as I got in, I saw Ali walking towards me. What struck me was the lack of seating for the customers. What can I say? I just don’t like eating in a car. After a brief round of introductions, he led me up a narrow flight of spiral stairs to his office/bakery/prep-area on the first floor. Once we were seated and he had ordered tea for the both of us, I fired away with some burning questions.

Yousuf: Opening up a restaurant highlighting burgers is a bold move. Why introduce burgers in an already saturated market?

Ali: (laughs) Karachi is not a city; it’s a country in its own right. With a population of around 20 million, there definitely is a place for my restaurant too. When people ask me who my competition is, I laugh at them. Unlike others in the fast food industry, I don’t believe in camouflaging the quality of the burger behind a bunch of sauces & mayonnaise. My focus, on the other hand, is for the people to be able to taste the original flavor of the meat. Burger, Inc. isn’t a fast food restaurant as my burgers are more on a gourmet trajectory. I hand-pick prime cuts of beef to create a perfect patty that is moist, light, and packs the maximum taste.

Yousuf: Who/what inspired you to open this restaurant?

Ali: To be very honest, the restaurant business is perhaps one of the very few good/clean business models, if you know what I mean. This and the opportunity to grow in Pakistan by selling a quality product at a fair price is what inspired me most. I want to turn Burger, Inc. into a national brand.

Yousuf: What sets you apart from your competition?

Ali: The first thing you should notice is that I have nothing to hide. The kitchen is practically open to anyone who wishes to see what’s going on. If I see a customer complain about delays in his order, I open my doors, lead him into the kitchen and let him see how his meal is being cooked. Our burger patties are not half-cooked then frozen to save time when they are put back on the grill. We cook the patties to order and this significantly increases our serving times.

I don’t believe in sourcing my supplies and have kept it to a bare minimum. Even the buns that we use are baked in our own ovens; it’s a simple recipe, nothing fancy, with potatoes, flour, salt and yeast. I don’t use any preservatives in our buns and that is why, we prefer calling them Artisan rolls. A burger is as much about the bun as it is about the patty, if not more, and it’s the bun that you taste when you first sink your teeth into it.

At Burger, Inc., we understand that each part of the cow has a different flavor/texture. As I said earlier, we blend different parts of the cow to create the perfect burger. All the cuts we used are marbled meat and we do not add any additional fat to it. To ensure this, I oversee the procurement of the meat cuts myself.

I’m big on hearing what the customers have to say about out food, especially if they have a negative critique. Such evaluations help us improve the quality of our food and service. I personally make it a point to scour the internet and respond to any queries that the customers may have (on forums, facebook, etc.). That way, the staff respects me more as they know I’m getting direct feedback from our consumers.

Yousuf: Are there any ‘secret’ spices/techniques we should know about?

Ali: There is no secret – PERIOD. We don’t put any spices in the meat as I want people to taste it the way God meant it to be tasted. A little salt and pepper is added onto the patty at the time of grilling and that’s about it. Even our chicken is not marinated, just classically deep fried in the southern American style.

Yousuf: Besides burgers, what is your favorite food?

Ali: I absolutely am in love with Koobideh Kabab served with Bakla rice. It’s a Persian staple made with minced lamb.

Yousuf: What are your future plans?

Ali: I’m currently searching for an additional outlet in the Muhammad Ali Housing Society vicinity and I intend to open up a branch there as soon as I possibly can.

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The Food (9/10)

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With that last question, I diverted my attention towards the delicacies that were being laid out in front of me. As I took my first bite, I could instantly tell that the bun was freshly baked. I could taste a hint of something familiar (i.e. potatoes) as it melted into my mouth. Soft and aromatic, it would itself be an excellent accompaniment to a cup of tea.

The beef patty was thick, juicy, charred on the outside and most of all, pink on the inside, a sure-shot sign of it being made from good quality meat. As promised by Ali, I was welcomed by the refreshingly untainted flavor of meat in my mouth. Not too chewy, not too crumbly, it was a perfectly succulent beef patty. I wasn’t a huge fan of the accompanying home-made sauce as it had a slightly grainy quality to it.

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Out came the chicken; golden, glistening and crisp.

“Looks can be deceiving”, I thought. “How can you not marinate a chicken and still manage to keep it juicy?”

As I took a bite, I couldn’t help but admire how tasty and moist it was despite the fact that it had not been marinated. The coating on the outside was fairly basic but had a nice crunch to it, the golden skin fried to perfection. The accompanying mayo-based sauce was a cherry on the top and would be an ideal dip for the french fries. I could eat a bucket-full any given day.

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With my hunger satiated, I went back down into the kitchen to see the patties being grilled in front of my eyes. The cook took out some almost-perfectly round hand-made frozen patties from the fridge, removed them from the plastic and put them on the grill. The all-too-familiar sizzling sound was music to my ears and I stood there mesmerized, watching the patties being grilled to perfection.

The Pricing (10/10)

Burger, Inc. is an ideal place for people who demand value for money. A per-person meal costs around PKR 450 on average and is worth every penny. This is another area where Burger, Inc. gives the other chains a run for their money. Let’s take a look at the menu below for reference (courtesy FC-Pakistan).

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The Verdict

All the reviews I had read online were understated. This burger was better than they claimed it to be, and then some. In this world full of processed meat and additives, it’s refreshing to try something that is lean and clean. If you want to satisfy your burger/chicken cravings without putting a significant dent in your pocket, head out to Burger, Inc. now and grab whatever gets your juices flowing.

There are, however, a few things I’d like to suggest that may help increase the Burger, Inc. clientele significantly:

  • Cater to children by adding in a kids menu; many parents like to buy small portions for the kids so that food isn’t wasted
  • Have some seating arrangement at all subsequent branches so that people can enjoy the burgers as soon as they come off the grill
  • I’m all about keeping a simple menu but you could really use some other items that compliment burgers, such as milk shakes, onion rings, etc. to give people a wider selection of sides
  • Get the sign on the front fixed; the first impression leaves a huge mark on the customers
  • Add a vegetarian option for people who can’t/don’t want to eat meat
  • Quality comes first; never compromise on it and the customers will keep on coming back for more

Thank you for having me over and I wish you all the best for your upcoming openings. I can’t wait to bring my family out there for a bite.