Pei Wei Asian Diner
Pei Wei, the Asian Diner on Dubai Marina Walk, gives off the aura of being cool. It’s the combination of the exposed brickwork, funky logo, and casual style (you order food at the counter first and then go and grab a table) which makes you feel that you are part of something very current and urban. They borrow flavors from all over Asia including Vietnam, Korea, China, Japan and Thailand. I walked in feeling like this restaurant knows modern flavors and what today’s young consumer wants. Their website uses ‘fresh’ as its buzzword and their menu proudly states that they do not use MSG. All signs indicate that this place knows tasty, healthy, fuss-free food. I was expecting clean vibrant flavours and fresh ingredients. I really really wanted to like it. Really I did. But unfortunately I was disappointed with the food, although the staff and service were very good.
There were three of us and as we looked at the menu, a waitress came and asked if we wanted to order drinks. We ordered a bottle of sparkling water and also asked for some edamame beans to start with. The edamame beans arrived looking very sad. Instead of the vibrant green of freshly steamed edamames that I am used to, ours were a very dull green. We all ate a few and then stopped. It was the first time ever that the edamame beans on our table didn’t disappear within minutes.
My focus at the restaurant was the salads. I do realize that Pei Wei’s specialty is stir-fries and not salads, however I believe that anything a restaurant puts on its menu needs to be good even if it is not their specialty.
Pei Wei’s menu offers two main course salads: ‘Asian Chopped Chicken Salad’ and ‘Pei Wei Spicy Chicken Salad’. From their descriptions, they both looked great. It was hard to decide which one would be better so we decided to order both and share them between us.
The Asian Chopped Chicken Salad arrived first. This is how it was described on the menu:
Sliced chicken, assorted lettuce, Napa cabbage, carrots, Thai basil, tomatoes, crispy wontons, toasted sesame seeds, sesame ginger vinaigrette (AED 35)
On arrival, it looked good but unfortunately that’s where it ended. A quick toss of the salad revealed a mound of bland iceberg lettuce, uninspiring chicken slices, carrots which looked like they came from a pre-shredded pack, I think I might have seen one elusive shred of Napa cabbage, dumplings which turned out to be deep-fried strips of wonton pastry rather than the little stuffed parcels of steamed deliciousness I was expecting. The dressing was good but nothing out of this world. The black and white sesame seeds on the top were very pretty and a nice touch. The one startling thing which really stood out while eating Pei Wei’s Asian Chopped Chicken Salad was that the whole thing tasted of, well, nothing.
No worries, sometimes one dish isn’t good but the next one was bound to be amazing. After all, it was the restaurant’s namesake salad Pei Wei Spicy Chicken Salad. This is how it was described on the menu:
Wok-seared chicken, assorted lettuce, Napa cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, snow peas, scallions, cilantro, rice sticks, tomatoes, lime vinaigrette (AED 35)
What I got was a salad which was so bizarre and different from what I had been envisioning that I had to look at it for a while to believe that it was in fact the salad I had ordered.
The main veggie part of the salad was pretty much exactly like the Asian Chopped Chicken Salad – plenty of tasteless iceberg lettuce, pre-shredded packaged carrots, and almost no Napa cabbage. In place of fried wonton pastry was a layer of fried rice noodles, and crowning the entire thing was a big sticky glob of hot batter-coated deep-fried chicken coated thickly in fluorescent orange sweet-and-sour sauce which was slowly wilting the lettuce directly below it. Nowhere on the menu did I see any mention of the pungent overwhelming sweet-and-sour sauce, which is odd considering the over-powering flavor of the sauce. This time we didn’t toss the salad. We tasted the sweet-and-sour-chicken before moving it aside and trying to taste what was underneath. The Thai lime vinaigrette was excellent but sadly that’s the best I can say about the Pei Wei Spicy Chicken Salad.
The thing is, I really wanted Pei Wei to get it right. I still want them to get it right. I love Oriental flavors in salads and Pei Wei’s multi-country Asian menu gives it the scope to play with so many delicious flavors. They have an amazing and unique Thai lime vinaigrette – it’s a keeper. The chicken should have been a well-marinated piece of chicken breast which was grilled and sliced at the time of ordering. All the salad veggies should have tasted of something, not simply be there as a filler. And importantly, when you tell a salad eater that there is cabbage in their salad, it creates expectations of the bold crisp flavor of raw cabbage leaves which can almost be heady. I want sliced mangetout, some baby corn, and beansprouts. I want to see a wedge of glistening lime on the side ready to burst and a drizzle of crushed peanuts. And no fried carbs on top, please. I want Pei Wei to show that salads can be amazing, not just a filler food for someone who is weight or health conscious.
Pei Wei is a chain associated with PF Chang, so I know that changing a dish on the menu is a big job. However, the US branches offer other salads, so maybe the Dubai branches could look at changing the salads they offer here.
I don’t want to leave the impression that the whole visit was awful. Our waitress was very attentive and nice, and the restaurant Manager was friendly, talkative and infectiously enthusiastic.
I do understand that Pei Wei is not a ‘salad place’ and that it is very possible that their non-salad dishes are superb. However, I am getting tired of restaurants treating salads as an afterthought, which is what I think has happened at Pei Wei and in fact happens at so many restaurants which do not explicitly focus on healthy eating. For a salad, keep it simple, keep it fresh, include a protein, have an excellent dressing (the type which makes people lick their plate), and no fried items please.
Pei Wei Asian Diner
DM Phase 1-G-A3 (near Spinney’s Marina Walk)
Full Disclosure: I visited Pei Wei privately and paid for my own food.