With mini-eateries and delis eating up commercial real estate in Lahore (specifically Gulberg), every Tom, Dick and Harry setting up shop comes as no surprise. Within a few hundred meters of each other, we now have Mocca, Cafe Latch, Espresso, Deli, Pantry, Rice Bowl, Little Eatery and Bamboo Union- and yet the consumer base has not been exhausted. People convene here religiously at all times of the day: nibbling, people watching, loitering. I must admit, it can be rather fun.
I’ve dined at Bamboo Union twice since it has opened. Initially I visited it in it’s inaugural stages for lunch, perhaps in October of 2016; I followed this visit with another about two weeks ago, where I sat down for dinner.
Now I must confess, I really wanted to like Bamboo Union before I even saw it. Pan-Asian cuisine has been slowly and unapologetically taking over my world, one dumpling at a time. As a family we live and breathe for this sort of grub- be it Chinese, Japanese, Thai or some form of eclectic fusion between them all. When Bamboo Union opened up, the very thought of it sent shivers down my esophagus, so you can imagine how bizarre it felt when I found it to be simply mediocre- on a good day.
Credit where credit is due, the physical location, ambiance and service is on point. Modeled much like Wagamama, Bamboo Union is minimal, communal and quaint. Its contemporary design featuring wood beams and concealed mood lighting seems refreshing and unique, and I quite like the idea of business lunches and quick dinner dates there. With an open kitchen design and an air of sophistication, the indoor section is marvelously done. The steam and the aroma from the kitchen are subtle reminders of Noodle House (we miss you), and offer some form of entertainment while one waits. The outdoor section conforms, however; it’s the same setup you see everywhere, from Second Cup to Salt ‘N Pepper- columnar heaters, wick chairs, glass panels atop tables, white ashtrays. I won’t hold this against them, it seems to be adequate in almost all dining circumstances. The waiting staff is prompt, polite and accommodating- always a delight.
Another thing that I simply must hand to Bamboo Union is that their presentation of food is extraordinary, and that’s something that can’t just be a coincidence. Slate plates, colorful garnishes and hand-arranged ingredients suit this genre of food.
The menu selection is concise without being too restrictive. For appetizers there’s a selection between two takes on chicken dumplings and two variants of prawns. There’s about six soups (I tried none of the soups) and three salads, all of which seem to be well thought through. On the whole, the main course options are pretty consistent with what you may find at YUM or Tao. There’s the usual Chinese options like Hot & Sour Chicken, Beef Chili Dry and Chili Garlic Prawns, but that’s not what I’m looking for when I think Pan-Asian. To my delight, Bamboo Union does not disappoint in this regard: Red Curry Chicken, Beef Bulgogi, Prawn Laksa and Bangkok Curry Noodles dominate the menu as specialties.
For appetizers, considering that there are only four to choose from, I ordered all four options (this is a cumulative review listing menu items that I tried on both occasions).
The Chicken Dumplings were too tough, much like age-old ravioli, and had some form of desi masala in them. Am I at the right place? Is this Asian food? I was immediately put off, so needless to say even the Chicken Dumpling Nachos were the same with perhaps a few pieces of Doritos-like tortilla chips. For an Asian place, I’d expect crystal shrimp dumplings at the very least, and not something I’d find at Hsing Kuang (no disrespect, I like Hsing Kuang for different reasons).
The Fiery Tempura Prawns were soggy because they were drenched in cooking oil as a result of not being patted down by paper towels. They disintegrated immediately upon contact with my fork (no chopsticks by default? tsk), leaving me with something that resembled a valaiti khichri. The sauce that accompanied them was clearly squeezed out of a store bought Thai sweet chili bottle. No bueno.
Last, but certainly not the least were the Fire Cracker Prawns, the only remotely good appetizer. Well-glazed, crisp and with a kick, the fresh prawns showed how the rest of the appetizer menu should have been. I’d order these again, perhaps every time.
We ordered the Crunchy Honey Beef, Beef Bulgogi, Pad Thai with Prawn, Bangkok Curry Noodles and Green Curry with Chicken.
I didn’t expect the Crunchy Honey Beef to be so sweet, even with “honey” in the listed name. It was all crunch and minimal beef, and tasted like all the beef scraps in the kitchen had been thrown together in a jiffy. I may or may not have become diabetic if I had finished the serving. Do yourself a favor and stick to either Rice Bowl or YUM for this entree.
The Bulgogi was a bummer. It looked appetizing and was spicy as hell, but failed to be an adequate representation of Korean Cuisine. It was, in essence, a variant of Beef Jalfrezi, and while I may have ordered it at a street-food vendor, I had no reservations in leaving the plate mostly untouched.
The Pad Thai was oddly sour and bitter at the same time, and while the rest of the ingredients seemed to match up with my expectations, I couldn’t get over the overpowering juxtaposition that lacked any real complexity. Also- NO SPICE. Jeez, that’s a buzzkill and then some. I expected something extraordinary and ended up with something I had to struggle to finish. The prawns were the only redeeming factor in the entree, and I consciously began to dread the rest of our order.
The Bangkok Curry Noodles were hilarious. Flat noodles in a curry broth with fresh Thai herbs like lemongrass, they smelled, as you may expect, of curry, lime and all things Thai. Sounds yummy, you say? Not really. To be quite frank, the noodles tasted like Maggi Noodles, complete with their very own packaged broth seasoning. If I wanted something store-bought, I’d, well.. buy it at the store. I had heard good things about this entree, and even if I cut them some slack and assume that they were having a bad day on that one occasion, the resultant food was still disastrous. However, like in the Pad Thai and the Fire Cracker appetizers, the prawns were good. At least there’s consistency.
To review the Green Curry with Chicken would be unfair; I only sampled it after I reheated it at home, so that isn’t reflective of Bamboo Union. Still, the curry was bland and far too milky, and that’s all I’ll say about that.
I wouldn’t have stayed for dessert anyway, so it kind of worked out that Bamboo Union does not have a dessert menu. I was headed for the door as soon as I paid what was due.
The thing is, I wanted to give Bamboo Union a bad review in October. But I have persistent and stubborn friends. Give it another chance, some of my peers said. It’s actually not that bad, others said. So I waited. I reflected on my first experience. I tried it again. And here you have it.
It’s a shame that such a well set up restaurant with dignified ambiance and noteworthy service to match fails to live up to the hype. Like I said, I really wanted to like it; hell, I would have raved about it if I had even one good reason to do so. I will admit that I did not try the salads or the soups, but if that’s all that’s good there, that statement speaks for itself. Bamboo Union needs a new chef, or a menu that complements the existing one. It’s as simple as that.
Bamboo Union, in my opinion, lacks the kick that a Pan-Asian restaurant should pack; it lacks the execution that their brilliantly thought out menu deserves. But most of all, it lacks a reason for me to choose it over virtually any other eatery in Lahore.