Warmed-Over Chow

Photo: James Leynse for New York Magazine

‘You’ve got to be kidding me,” my dining companion declared as we sat trapped like rabbits at our little table at the new Mr. Chow outlet in Tribeca. Next to us were a mother and daughter from New Jersey, each with a bejeweled cell phone set on the table. Next to them, a European couple (she younger, he vastly older) waited for their menus in stony, petulant silence. We’d been awaiting our menus, too, and in the clamorous interim (everything about the new Mr. Chow being clamorous) my friend, an epicure from L.A., observed that a bottle of Far Niente Chardonnay ($36.95 from wine-club-central.com) cost $105 at Mr. Chow. When he wondered aloud about the fate of our menus, the ladies from Jersey said that because the food at Mr. Chow hadn’t changed in 40 years, the waiters seemed to think people knew the dishes by heart. “Try the chicken satay,” the mother suggested. Still our menus did not arrive. Eventually, the Europeans stood up, upset the jar of flowers at their table, and stalked from the room. “That’s two down,” said my friend as we watched them go.

A certain gallows humor can overtake those who have the misfortune to get caught in the evening rush at Mr. Chow Tribeca. There are now four members of this glamorous restaurant chain, including one uptown, one in L.A., and the original one, in London, which opened way back in 1968. Their durability is owed to the astuteness of Michael Chow himself, an artist and entrepreneur who left China for British boarding school shortly before his aristocratic Shanghainese family was decimated during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Like many successful businessmen, Mr. Chow developed an effective formula early on and has never deviated from it. His menu dates from a distant, Paleolithic era when Chinese food still retained an element of mysterious cachet. Always, the food is served by bow-tied waiters in an exaggerated, pseudo-swank, Continental style. Always, it’s outrageously expensive, a canny tactic designed to alleviate the hidden fear, among the masses who flock there, that it might not be very good after all.

In the case of Mr. Chow Tribeca, this fear is further alleviated by the restaurant’s slick, even lavish décor. The room has a polished black bar in front, flanked with frosty silver bowls brimming with opened bottles of champagne. Decorative squares of white lacquered wood have been affixed to the ceiling with metal rods, and the walls are covered with blow-up fashion portraits of Mr. Chow and his faded celebrity friends (a famished-looking Christopher Walken) in sepia tones. Fresh lilies and sprays of white roses have been placed strategically around the room, and the tables are covered in crisp white linen, and lit from within, in the center, with glowing squares of light. On a quiet night, the place can seem pleasant and stylish, in a glam, eighties sort of way. On a crowded night, the service falls off a cliff, the decibels reach hysterical Beatlemania levels, and it’s easy to feel like the regretful participant in some restaurant reality-TV show.

That first meal at Mr. Chow began in comically dismal fashion and then got steadily worse. By the time our menus arrived, the ladies at the next table had finished their dinner, packed up their jeweled phones, and departed. This was a good thing, since the chicken satay they recommended turned out to be two scraggly portions of chicken breast ($5.50 each) marinated in some indistinct orange substance and obscured in a kind of boiled cream sauce tasting vaguely of peanuts. The harried (mostly Italian) waiters also brought us some rock-hard, midget-size pot stickers, a petite mound of the famous Mr. Chow diced squab (costing roughly $9 per petite spoonful), and a single, shopworn scallion pancake about the size (and texture) of one of my daughter’s breakfast mini-waffles. Our frog’s legs were muffled in an elderly batter crust, and a dish called Drunken Fish ($31 à la carte) consisted of a couple of wet pieces of sole sunk in a curious gelatinous substance which had no color and very little taste and looked perilously like pond slime. There were also a few desiccated strips of shrimp toast, a dish of sautéed ostrich, which had a soft, mildly exotic texture to it, and a helping of lamb with scallions ($28 à la carte) so abysmally bad it prompted the L.A. gastronome to cry, over the hubbub of the room, “But this isn’t lamb, it’s shreds of old mutton!”

My subsequent meals at Mr. Chow Tribeca were a little better, though I doubt my L.A. friend would believe it. Perhaps it’s because I dined with one or two of the city’s numerous Mr. Chow obsessives, people for whom the timeless idiosyncrasies of the Mr. Chow experience (high-handed waiters, absurdist prices, the creepy greenness of the green shrimp) have, over the decades, become a kind of comforting, clubby ritual. Under their patient tutelage (plus a $12 martini or two), I was able to appreciate the crunch of the salt-and-pepper prawns (crunchiness, extreme saltiness, and a cloying, greasy sweetness being the holy trinity of all of Mr. Chow’s cuisine) and the weird textural pleasures of the fabled “Ma Mignon,” which is filet mignon encased in a crispy flour crust. Among the appetizers, I liked the soup dumplings and the rice-paper prawns, shaped like little cigars. Have them with the Peking duck, which is carved in neat little slivers and served family style (at $58 per head, plus two dishes) on a great silver tray.

Are any of these delicacies worth the exorbitant cost, and potential aggravation, of a trip to the newest Mr. Chow? Probably not. But then if Mr. Chow were just peddling food, he’d have been out of business years ago. What he’s peddling is a hint of glamour, a whiff of celebrity, a tenuous sense that you’re making the scene. Certainly no one was bull-rushing the restaurant, on the evenings I was there, for the desserts. They include a meager fruit plate (oranges, litchis, mealy slices of kiwi), random slices of berry tart or chocolate-fudge cake, and servings of coconut sorbet packed, Trader Vic’s style, into the shell of a coconut. If you order coffee, it’s possible it will be tepid (mine was), and if you crave a glass of dessert wine, your only choice is a $365 half-bottle of Château d’Yquem. So order one up, and offer a toast to the ephemeral glories of the high life. Or do what this beleaguered critic did on his last trip to Mr. Chow. Pay your bill, and get out of there as fast as you can.

No Stars
Address: 121 Hudson St., nr. N. Moore St.; 212-965-9500
Hours: Dinner daily, from 6 to 11:30 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $5.50 to $22. Entrées, $26 to $42.Ideal Meal: Soup dumplings, rice-paper prawns, Peking duck, coconut sorbet.
Note: If you don’t make it to this new branch of Mr. Chow, there’ll be two more opening in 2008, one in Miami, the other at the Hard Rock Hotel in Vegas.

Scratchpad: People impressed by the Mr. Chow scene should like this place okay. People who aren’t won’t.

Warmed-Over Chow