For a relaxed evening with friends, you can't go far wrong at Cho Gao. The atmosphere is convivial, the decor stylish without being intimidating, and the food is pretty decent.
In terms of setting, there is much to like here: soft, dimmed lighting blushed with reds and oranges, high tables with stools to perch on, wooden screens that divide the restaurant into sections, so that it manages to feel both open and intimate, and a few tables hidden in nooks and crannies for those who are after a bit of privacy.
The breadth of the pan-Asian menu (which includes everything from dim sum to Thai curry and nasi goreng) suggests that even though the food might not be entirely authentic, you will probably be able to order a favourite dish here. And sometimes, that's all you want.
Fried chicken dim sum is a case in point, and it was just the thing to satisfy post-work hunger. The meat was neither dry (the problem that so often befalls poultry), nor greasy and a hint of ginger in the mix freshened things up nicely. The sweet chilli dipping sauce was just the right side of fiery and wasn't cloying, as it can sometimes be.
Tempura vegetables (broccoli, asparagus, courgette) weren't terrible, but they weren't great either. The batter was a few shades too pale and needed 30 seconds or so longer in the fryer, to reach a deep, golden crispness. Tempura batter is unforgiving; to retain its crunchy, airy lightness it needs to go straight from fryer to table and I think that these vegetables had been left to linger in the kitchen for a little too long.
For the main course, an order of ever-popular Peking duck brought us a generous portion of shredded meat that was, for the most part, moist with crisp, juicy skin. The hoisin sauce was strongly flavoured and treacly, but there wasn't enough of it. Still, the staff were happy to refill the little pot when we asked. The pancakes were the only thing that let the dish down; they were patchy in colour and just too thick. Flimsy, paper-thin pancakes work best here, with the rich meat and the pungent sauce. Cho Gao's robust version just added stodginess.
Massaman curry with chicken tasted as we'd expected and I mean that in a good way; this is a dish that you order expecting a familiar flavour. The sweet coconut sauce was milky and mild, with a hint of roasted peanut and a vague chilli heat, and it was eagerly soaked up with a sizeable bowl of jasmine rice.
For dessert, black sesame ice cream was served in a glass with a rounded base, which made it almost impossible to scoop up and although it had a pleasant, nutty flavour, the texture was icy, rather than smooth. Although caramelised bananas weren't actually caramelised as you might expect - I think it's safe to say the cold pieces of fruit hadn't been anywhere near a hot pan - they were covered in a toothsome caramel sauce, which we enjoyed chipping away at.
The food at Cho Gao isn't exceptional, but then if it is perfectly executed Asian fine-dining fare you are after, you could splash out at Hakkasan or Zuma. At this restaurant, the prices are reasonable and the portions generous. Commandeer a table with a group of friends, order a selection of dishes to pick away at and you will most probably leave a sated and satisfied customer.
A meal for two at Cho Gao, Crowne Plaza, Abu Dhabi, costs Dh283, not including service. For reservations call 02 616 6149. All reviewed meals are paid for by The National and reviews are conducted incognito.