Yes, this is the second Pan Asian restaurant in less than a month, following my visit to Too Too Moo Whetstone at the beginning of the year.
Chi Kitchen is located inside Debenhams’ flagship Oxford Street store, though it does have its own external entrance on the corner of Henrietta Place and Marylebone Lane. If you enter via Oxford Street (into the shop), be aware that the restaurant is poorly signposted but you’ll find it at the far back left corner of the ground floor.
The restaurant website describes the evolution of the Chi Kitchen brand as follows:
The brand Chi Kitchen was created after much thought. The word Chi means energy in Chinese. Our aim, therefore, is to build a brand that is not only going to offer great food, but also provide good energy to Debenhams customers, as well as the new customers that Chi Kitchen will attract. We have also chosen a Chinese symbol “火” , which again has a strong meaning… it means Fire. We have managed to link the word Chi and the symbol together, as fire can be converted into energy. Fire also relates directly to our restaurant, as we are using a robata grill in all sites.
What drew me to accept an invitation to review was the knowledge that the menu has been created by MasterChef 2014 winner, Ping Coombes, who wowed with her Malaysian cooking, and has since been working in the industry as a chef and consultant. The menu is described as South-East Asian with influences from Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Malaysian, Thai and Vietnamese and cuisines.
Despite being inside a department store, once you are inside Chi Kitchen it feels like a standalone restaurant. Tables are well spaced out, and we have lots of room at our comfy dark turquoise leather banquette by the window. I like the fact that there is plenty of warm wood and soft leather; it’s a modern, light and attractive space. The kitchen is open, which I always appreciate, and lighting is reasonable – no doubt glorious during the summer when plenty of natural light will surely spill in through ground to ceiling windows.
First, drinks. Regular (and later, lychee) Mojitos are both decent, though a touch heavy on the ice to drink ratio for my tastes.
The menu sections feel rather too numerous. Snacks, Raw, Maki Rolls, Dim Sum, Small Plates and Small Plates Robata all present small dishes. Mains are listed under Robata BBQ, Noodles & Rice, Signatures and Soup Noodles. Even sides are divided between Vegetables and Sides sections, despite all items within Vegetables being side portions. It’s not a big deal but makes the menu more confusing to navigate and understand.
From the Raw section we choose Salmon tartare (£7.95).
The theatrical way it’s served – with a pot of dry ice on the corner of the serving plate billowing thick white clouds of fog – is fun but feels out of keeping with both the menu and the casual comfortable vibe of the restaurant.
The flavours of this dish are good – the dressing on the salmon in particular is delicious and I like the avocado base – but the big let down is the quality of salmon; there are lots of chewy edges to the chopped cubes. A good cut of sashimi grade salmon would have a far silkier texture.
Popcorn shrimp (£8.50), from Small Plates, is one of our two favourites of the meal though the portion is far smaller than it seems on arrival, especially given the price; five single-bite battered prawns are served over a pile of lettuce that makes the portion look more generous on arrival. The shrimp are tossed in a delicious wasabi mayonnaise and the burst of sweet-sharp pomegranate seeds appeals visually and in the mouth. Best eaten fast while they are hot and before the tempura crunch is lost.
The menu doesn’t specify which cut of beef is used for the Beef kushiyaki (£9.95 for two skewers) but unfortunately the lovely flavour of the unagi sauce is let down by very chewy meat. Virtually every piece on my friend’s skewer and more than half of mine take far more chewing than is ideal. I don’t like pappy beef but this is too far in the opposite direction and not acceptable at this price point.
Our first main course is Szechuan beef (£15.95). This is delicious, with punchy flavours, a decent but not overwhelming chilli heat and beautifully tender beef (specified on the menu as sirloin). It’s quite saucy, so I’d advise ordering some rice as one of your sides.
Our waitress recommends the King crab ho fun noodles (£18.95) and it’s certainly tasty, though I would expect a lot more crab for just shy of twenty pounds! Once again, the dish has good flavours, plus a nice mix of textures and some nice heat. The let down is that it’s served far too cold – the noodles are lukewarm and the crab on top is cold. Temperature aside, this is a decent dish and we enjoy it.
Our two vegetables sides are both enjoyable. The Miso aubergine (£7.95) – a cross-sectional slice of aubergine rather than the more traditional (and generous) half – is soft, sweet from the miso marinade and tasty. The Baby pak choi (£5.50) is a touch overcooked but with bags of flavour in the garlic sauce and a touch of crunch left in the thicker stems.
Our other favourite from the meal is Roti (£5.95 for 2 pieces), served with Malaysian curry sauce. The two flatbreads are superbly soft and flaky and oh my goodness, the curry sauce is sensational! In this one dish I finally see what the fuss is about when it comes to Ping Coombes’ way with South East Asian flavours! If they sold bottles of this sauce, I’d be first in the queue.
When it comes to dessert, the one I really want to try – Baked green tea Alaska (£7.95) – is not available, so we order two others to share.
The Chocolate sphere (£7.50) has become a bit of a dessert cliché these days – two semi-spherical chocolate shells that are melted at the table by the pouring of hot sauce, to reveal the contents within. In this case, the caramel sauce is not hot enough and although the chocolate eventually slumps, it never melts away for that showy reveal. Inside is a slightly strange mix of white chocolate, raspberry and blueberries, plus the dark chocolate and caramel sauce. It’s alright, but a little too sweet and doesn’t quite hit the mark for me.
Mango crème brulee (£6.95) is certainly intensely mango in flavour and very tasty. Texture-wise, it’s more of a silky cream like a posset, than a set custard but that’s not a big quibble. It’s served with a mango sorbet, whereas I think a contrasting flavour would be more interesting.
There’s a lot to like at Chi Kitchen. The flavours are certainly good, and I don’t get that jack of all trades master of none feeling that can sometimes occur in restaurants covering multiple cuisines. But there are a few missteps, both in quality of ingredients and in the serving temperature of a couple of dishes. Prices seem excessive for several of the dishes, even taking into account the Oxford Street department store location.
If I went back, it would be for those heavenly roti with curry sauce.
Kavey Eats dined as guests of Chi Kitchen.