Venerable old restaurants are a lot like venerable old monarchies. The longer they last, the more they’re prone to defections, palace intrigue, and outright revolt. During the course of its long run, the kitchen at Le Cirque was subject to all sorts of dramas and conspiracies (most notably when Daniel Boulud left to open his own restaurant), and lately Peter Luger veterans seem to be opening knockoffs of the Brooklyn chophouse at the rate of about one every six months. Now it appears it’s Mr. Chow’s turn. Michael Chow’s aged East Side hangout has been attracting successive generations of jaded C-grade celebrities for nearly 30 years. The executive chef during most of this run was Philippe Chow (no relation to Michael), who helped perfect the restaurant’s colorful, heavily flavored brand of Chinese food. But after 26 years of loyal service, Philippe has up and left. And he has taken almost all of Mr. Chow’s menu, a waiter or two, and many of Mr. Chow’s cooks (most notably Wai Ming Cheng, creator of “Mr. Cheng’s Noodles”) with him.
The new place is called Philippe, and it opened several months ago on 60th Street near Madison Avenue, a few blocks west of the old mother ship. Although the menu appears to be an almost exact facsimile of the one at Mr. Chow’s, the décor is not. There are no designer chairs ringing the tables, no fanciful art pieces decorating the room, no antique lacquer painted on the walls. Instead, diners are herded into a cramped lounge area, where glossy magazines are strewn over a coffee table, like at a dentist’s office. Next to the lounge is a Lilliputian-size bar, which swarmed, on the evenings I was there, with edgy-looking salarymen, many with wireless- phone headsets affixed to their ears. The dining area is long and a little cramped, too, with a room upstairs and a small room in back dominated by a spindly, towering flower arrangement. The walls of the rooms are colored in dull shades of gray and white, and the tables are tiny, so the impression you get, as the waiters rush around in their slightly tattered white jackets, is of dining in the officers’ mess of a crowded and very clamorous submarine.
The menu at Mr. Chow’s, and therefore Philippe, dates from a time when Chinese cuisine was considered a novelty in the city. The vividly colored dishes are pitched to heavy Western palates, loaded as they are with industrial amounts of cornstarch and sugar, and if you overdose on them, you risk lying awake late into the night, staring bug-eyed at the ceiling, listening to the palpitations of your heart. That’s more or less what happened to me after I lingered a little too long at Philippe over the chef’s special Nine Seasons Spicy Prawns. The dish (a Mr. Chow’s staple) consisted of a heap of iridescent orange prawns encased in a candy crust so thick you almost had to chop at it with your fork. My meal, on that first night, was rounded out with a great tangle of crispy beef (also heavily sugared, like a meat-lover’s version of Cap’n Crunch) and a flotilla of supporting prawn dishes, including the old Mr. Chow’s warhorse, green prawns, as well as red prawns (smothered in tomato sauce) and pink prawns (covered in a sweet gingery sludge of sour sauce).
The prices at Mr. Chow’s have always been high, and at Philippe they’re absurd. I paid $12 for a coffee cup of watery, Campbell’s-grade shark-fin soup and $14 for a few vulcanized segments of shrimp toast. Mr. Cheng’s eponymous handmade noodles also cost $14. They’re a variation, possibly, on cold Dan-Dan noodles from Sichuan but taste like a mixture of cold pasta and warmed-over Bolognese spiked with not enough teriyaki sauce. The bigger entrées are advertised as being for two or three people, which seems to be an excuse for rampant price gouging. Most of the seafood dishes are $48, and another Mr. Chow’s retread called House Me Mignon (lukewarm fillet encased in a brittle crust and smothered in brown sauce) is $50. Other old standbys, like kung pao chicken ($32) and lamb tossed with scallions ($42), are possibly as good as your local takeout joint but not worth the extravagant price. The lone exception is the surprisingly regal Peking duck, which costs $65 but is cut tableside in the traditional manner and is as big as a Strasbourg goose.
Wo knows why it took me nearly five months to set foot in Barbounia. Maybe it was the restaurant’s name, which is Greek for a kind of red mullet that swims the Mediterranean but could also be the name of a disastrously energetic Off Broadway show, or a conscientious though possibly not very amusing troupe of circus clowns. Maybe it was the neighborhood, the southerly stretch of Park Avenue just above Union Square, an area that breeds huge, glitzy, generally forgettable restaurants the way Australia produces kangaroos. Maybe it was the restaurant’s stated theme, which, according to the PR notes, is “a boisterous reinvention of the Mediterranean’s vibrant cuisine and easy lifestyle,” all conjured up by the “dining concept innovators” behind the Sushi Samba chain and some designers based in Atlanta. Or maybe it was the room, with its rows of banquettes cluttered with throw pillows, and its bulbous white columns making it look, when you peep in from the street, like the inside of an oversize (though admittedly boisterous) Roman bathhouse.