We couldn't, at first, quite put our finger on what was different about PF Chang's China Bistro. Was it the red leather banquettes and dark wooden furniture, which gave the impression of being in an intimate restaurant, but whose glass doors opened directly on to the aisles of Mirdif City Centre shopping mall?
No, that wasn't it, although it meant the place was packed to the rafters at 9pm on a school night, with a pleasing mix of shoppers who had dropped in for a quick bite, families with children parked on their laps and an equal balance of locals and expatriates who were familiar with the US-based chain. In fact, we had to queue to be seated, and this just a week after the joint opened. Was it the two giant horses at the entrance, apparently a signature of each of the 200-plus outlets? Or the hand-painted murals on the walls, or the fusion of traditional Chinese with American, Mexican and Thai cuisine?
In fact, it was only when our waitress was explaining in detail the ingredients of my yin and yang mocktail, made with rhubarb and jalapeno, that it hit us. We were being served by people who knew all about the food they were serving. "It feels just like being at home," my New Yorker dining companion sighed nostalgically. PF Chang's has taken no risks and drafted in a team of trainers from the US to brief staff in the Mirdif restaurant on how to run it. And it showed. We were served by about five staff, of various nationalities, who knew the ingredients of each dish, had tasted them beforehand and gave us an honest review of what to expect.
Our waitress was spot-on with her description of the mocktail as "a bit different but lovely". The sweetness of the rhubarb was undercut by the bite of the jalapeno, making it a refreshing palate cleanser for the assault on our tastebuds to come. Unable to choose between starters, we ordered a selection. The dynamite shrimp might have looked like a starter from a 1980s cruise ship, arriving in a martini glass, but was an instant hit, with large moist prawns lightly coated in batter and smothered in a creamy mayonnaise sauce with chipotle chilli powder, giving a fiery kick that stopped short of being too spicy. Prawn cocktail never tasted that good.
Crab wontons had a delicate flavour and were wrapped in parcels that were neither too crispy or oily. They came with a selection of soy sauce, mustard and sweet chilli dips that hit the spot. The meat in our chicken and lettuce wraps - of which PF Chang's apparently sell 200 million a week - was tender, packed with flavour and complemented by the crisp greens. Thin slices of seared sushi grade ahi (yellowfin) tuna, cooked with five spices, were equally moist and melted in the mouth, although my companion turned up her nose at the thick mustard dressing, which seemed an unnecessary extra flavour.
Our mains were rather more hit-and-miss. The Philip's better lemon chicken and Chang's lemon scallops came with the same sickly-sweet gloop drowning them. The chicken was passable, despite a thick batter, while the scallops were okay if instantly forgettable, but both were marred by the sugary thick sauce. Crisp honey shrimps went down rather more easily, with just a drizzle of tangy sauce coating the battered prawns - not enough to make them inedible.
The wok-charred beef was more of a winner, with mouthwateringly tender top-grade meat caramelised with plump marinated shiitake mushrooms. A side dish of Szechuan asparagus had a lovely and slightly spicy oyster sauce poured over it but was ruined by the woody ends of the vegetable being thrown into the mix to bulk out the dish, leaving us chewing on bark-like, stringy pieces, rather than the delicate spears we had hoped for.
The waiting staff ended by wheeling over a trolley full of desserts. The "great wall of chocolate" and carrot cake earned the epithet "obesity on a plate" from my dining companion, thanks to their enormous six-layered slabs packed full of butter, cream and icing that made us feel slightly unwell just looking at them. We opted to share the banana spring rolls instead, which came wrapped in filo pastry that was too thick and chewy to work with the huge mound of coconut and pineapple ice cream in the middle. Banana fritters would have been a lighter option to accompany the ice cream - it was just too heavy after the vast, American-sized portions we had enjoyed. Judging by its popularity, PF Chang's is going to be a huge hit, particularly when it opens a second branch in Mall of the Emirates later this year. It's definitely worth a trip to Mirdif for the hospitality, the novel setting and the taste of Americana. But if you don't want to be rolled out of the restaurant, and to guarantee a tasty meal, stick to a selection of starters.
PF Chang's China Bistro, Mirdif City Centre, Dubai (04 231 6660). Our reviewer's meal for two with soft drinks cost Dh431. Restaurants are reviewed incognito and meals are paid for by The National.