The restaurant scene in Karachi has recently seen new entrants come in waves. There were the seafront restaurants serving barbecue and desi delicacies. Then came a slew of burger joints offering gourmet goodness. The latest wave, it seems, belongs to “Pan Asian” cooking.
Bonsai is one such new entrant.
Tucked away in a quiet corner of DHA Phase VII, it is one of many Pan Asian restaurants to have recently opened their doors but when you speaking to the owners, you soon realize that this isn’t a convenient bandwagon on which they have jumped. The restaurant was conceived by a group of four friends, none of whom have any significant experience in the hospitality industry, as an answer to everything they personally found annoying in the Karachi food scene. The decision to select Pan-Asian cuisine was, for them, a simple one, as that is the kind of food that they and their families enjoy.
This same personal approach is carried through into all aspects of the restaurant. It is a large and extremely well decorated space with tables spaced reasonably apart, and plenty of parking. The owners specifically chose a location away from the regular restaurant hubs in the city, because they found parking to be a pain (although this may work against them as the place doesn’t seem to have the same top-of-mind recall as other restaurants to have opened around the same time).
The design aesthetic is driven by their need to drive a more premium experience for their customers, with plenty of space to have conversations.
The interior is certainly very well done, with a proper sit-down restaurant feel rather than a casual dining environment. the seats, too, are not clustered too close together, giving the experience that little bit of extra privacy, and the ability to have a meal without being constantly distracted by the conversation on the table next door.
This personal approach also drives the menu design and execution.
The menu is not as varied as you may find in other contenders in the Pan Asian space, focused predominantly on Chinese and Thai food, with a smaller selection of Japanese offerings. There is the odd dish from other parts of the region, but largely there is a clear focus on the kind of food that the owners love. Portions, too, are served ‘family style’. Afaq, one of the owners, shared that they sought input from people associated with some of the more popular local restaurants, as well as one of the larger global chains, in their menu design.
Time to order
Having been impressed with the visual appeal of the place, we decided to order a bunch of dishes covering various cuisines. With a difference of opinion on what soups to order, we decided to go with individual portions rather than family size servings, as well as Chicken Wings, the Beef Negimaki and, of course, the Dynamite Prawns which, according to co-owner Afaq, are even better that the PF Changs’ offering they are inspired from.
For our main course, we went with the Red Curry, Steamed Snapper with lemongrass and chili, and the stir fried beef with chili. With a place focused on classic family favourites, it was only fair that our order, too, reflect the same. Our server, in a rather clever piece of cross-selling, also convinced us to order their ‘Cloud Maki’ roll. Interestingly, there didn’t seem to be a drinks menu (no, not even mint lemonade – Shock! Horror!).
After a short wait, the starters and soup were served. In addition to the Laksa, we had ordered the Tom Yum with chicken and prawns, and a clear soup with salmon.
I had taken a bit of a risk with the Laksa, not sure what to expect, but was pleasantly surprised. Prepared with vermicelli noodles (so more of an Indonesian Laksa than a Malay or Singaporean interpretation), the soup was well presented, with prawns and boiled egg providing the robustness to the dish; again, the lack of fried tofu and sliced vegtables point to Indonesian, rather than Malay, inspiration behind the recipe. The soup was well flavoured, with the coconut milk flavour being foremost in the spectrum, and the spice levels are well balanced. This is not a tart, aggressive Laksa, but a much milder one, so a good introduction for the uninitiated. A good start.
Tom Yum is in many aspects the seminal thai soup. When done right, it’s a complex amalgam of flavours and textures, and Bonsai gets it largely right. Other than the chili paste, which seems like an obligatory concession to local taste buds, the soup was well executed and well presented. The prawns were not too overcooked, and the soup had all the right flavors. Another very good soup offering, and not a grain of rice in sight.
Finally, the clear soup with salmon. Salmon being a super premium ingredient, I was pleasantly surprised to see a generous amount of the meat as part of the serving, The broth was visually appealing, not at all cloudy, and with the lemongrass and Thai chili both clearly visible. The broth was, well balanced in flavours; not too hot, and the fish sauce and lemongrass coming through well. The salmon was well cooked, still retaining its shape but not underdone. Surprisingly, another very accomplished dish.
At this point, I must confess that I approached this ‘all things to all people’ Pan Asian offering with more than my share of trepidation. Soups require a subtlety of flavour that it takes a bit of finesse to get right, and the offerings in that space were really very good. That raised the stakes for the rest of the meal, and next up were the starters.
A BITE OF MEDIOCRITY
First in line, then, were the Dynamite Prawns – I would like to tell you that this was a generation-defining, soul-reaffirming explosion of prawn-ness that wiped clean from my memory every last vestige of dynamite prawns that has preceded it, leaving me panting for more. But that would not be true. It was a ‘nice’ dish, well prepared and well presented. Was it a life-changing experience? No. But I would order it again.
Next up were the Cloud Maki rolls. Prepared in the “new style” of sushi rolls, but presented in a very much traditional style (think wooden block, with a blob of wasabi to a side and a shallow dish of soy sauce), this was again a well put-together dish. The “cloud” in question was a dusting of decimated coconut over the top of the dish which, which didn’t really add anything to the dish in terms of flavor or texture. It was an inoffensive dish, though, and a good introductory dish to someone trying sushi for the first time. That said, it was also unmemorable, and I would probably try something else next time round.
Finally in the line-up of starters was the Beef Negimaki – Strips of tender beef, rolled around a piece of grilled spring onions, and basted liberally with a sweet, sticky sauce that’s not a million miles away from Teriyaki in its flavours. The presentation was again professional (I kept thinking that both Japanese dishes were quite Sakura-esque in their execution) and the flavours were competent. The beef was well cooked and tender, and the spring onion retained a bit of crunch. Again, well executed, with little to find fault with.
Onwards, then, to the main courses, which are served ‘family-style’ for everyone to share. First up came stir fried beef with chili, a staple of Chinese restaurants across the city (my favorite ia from a restaurant on Tariq Road called Yuan Tung) . Following the theme set in the meal so far, this dish, too, was well prepared, and tasted quite good. The sprinkling of sesame over the top was more of a garnish, and didn’t add anything in terms of flavour or textures. Again, this was a ‘safe’ execution of a staple menu item; a healthy dose of sesame oil may have elevated the dish; but that would have taken it out of familiar territory, and that’s not Bonsai’s calling card.
Next up was the Red Curry with chicken. This is another one of those dishes which is easy to miss the mark on, as it requires a deceptive complexity of flavours. Once again, we were pleasantly surprised. While the dish would have benefited from the chef being a bit more aggressive on the fish sauce, it was overall a very good dish, bringing some heat, but with the other flavours not overpowered by it. Again, there was a generous use of premium ingredients on display. A winner of a dish.
Bonsai feels like a ‘greatest hits’ compilation of the various successful restaurants in the Pan Asian genre.
That’s not a bad thing, but it means that I was struggling to establish an identity for the place that was not derivative of somewhere else. If the signature dishes on your menu are “just as good as” another restaurant, then the only thing you really have going for yourself is that people can come here and sample a curated selection of the best dishes of other restaurants. That makes for a bit of a dubious claim to fame, to be honest.And, saving the best for last, was the steamed snapper. Now this dish had the odds stacked against it, as I am a huge fan of Thai style steamed fish, and even Fuchsia has not been able to come up to my standards in terms of flavours. This, though, got two big thumbs up. Great broth, perfectly cooked fish, lemongrass and coriander used not as a garnish but as proper components of the dish. Was expecting very little from this one, to be honest, due to the menu in general being so populist, but was pleasantly surprised. A winner.
The location, off the beaten track, also means that walk-ins will be few and far between, and customers will have to make a bit of an effort to give it a try. While great in terms of parking, this also may work against the restaurant getting off to a flying start. And in a restaurant scene where social media word-of-mouth is becoming more important by the day, this is one new restaurant launch that wasn’t accompanied by a major marketing burst. Which is a bit of a pity, because there is little to find fault with in the overall experience. Pricing is marketed as mid-tier, but our experience was that they are more in the premium space – but that may just be a result of our order selection. We didn’t feel that the meal overall was not offering value for money, so there’s that.
Overall, the meal at Bonsai was above average. While not a forgettable experience, it was not that will stay long in the memory either. Everything we ordered was well prepared, well presented and tasted nice. The premium feel of the ambiance was a definite bonus, but is that alone enough to elevate this restaurant in a market where the challenge is to build repeat visit value?
I feel that Bonsai lacks that one signature dish that would really set it apart from the pack, and that might be its fatal flaw; good at everything, but falling just short of exceptional. The feeling is exacerbated by the fact that the two standout dishes in the entire meal were the ones that don’t feature as their signature, because they aren’t signature dishes in the restaurants that Bonsai seeks inspiration from.
The problem with Bonsai isn’t one of food quality, but of identity. I hope that the restaurant team gets the confidence to back themselves, and not ‘me-too’ others, as their unique dishes are strong enough to be the focal point of the menu, with the more populist offerings there to act as a supporting cast.
Bonsai is situated in DHA Phase VII, at the corner of Khayaban e Ghazi and Khayaban e Nishat, and is open for lunch and dinner. The meal cost us Rs 2,000 per head, including tips.