A splendid fantasia of Chinese food and glamour.
Mr. Chow is not your ordinary Chinese restaurant. Indeed, the eponymous chef Michael Chow opened the restaurant on East 57th Street in 1979 believing that there was an opportunity to redefine Chinese cuisine by serving it in a dramatic, elegant setting that had previously been reserved for the less exotic canons of the French and the Italians.
This is Chinese food without the take-out boxes, without the orange chicken, without the greasy clumps of chow mein. This is Chinese food that is presented with hyperbolic splendor, swollen prices, and a stateliness that has yet to be rivaled in the cuisine. This is Chinese food that is extraordinary, simply because it has been declared to be.
But there is one question for which Mr. Chow must do some soul searching to find the answer: can the food possibly live up to the incredible expectations its elegant setting has created? And at the end of the day, does it matter if it doesn’t?
Indeed, the restaurant is so formal and fabulous that it’s easy to forget Chinese food is on the menu until you settle down to order. But when service does finally come around in the clubby, sunken dining room with walls of antique mirrors, there are a few classic dishes not to be missed.
Chicken satay is an original favorite with an appealing dose of spice, though its tenderness is the result of an exceptionally ethereal and buttery sauce, rather than some technically proficient execution. The Green Prawns, bright and colorful after a spinach "bath," have a sweet yet earthy bite, and almost seem to pop with a burst of flavor.
A recent preparation of beef with shepherd’s purse, however, suffered from an excess of oil and clumpy fats that rendered the herbal elements of the dish virtually invisible. In fact, many of the flaws found in the dishes coming from Mr. Chow’s kitchen can be attributed to this over-reliance on fats and oils, and a neglect of salt and heat.
Perhaps most indicative of the strained balance between the buzzy showmanship of the restaurant and the food coming out of it are Mr. Chow’s noodles, prepared daily in the middle of service to an adoring crowd. As the chef whips the noodles back and forth, guests think they’re getting something truly authentic in this lustrous, fabulously decorated bubble, but when the noodles arrive in a pile of thick sauce, they are limp, mushy, and profoundly flavorless. It would be a tragedy at any other restaurant, but at Mr. Chow, it’s swept under the rug of everyone’s combined glamour. After all, if you have to ask if the food is actually good, you clearly aren’t in the know.
How much longer can guests leave the restaurant without questioning the quality of their high-priced meal, instead simply basking in the sumptuous splendor of the dining room, that one excellent shrimp dish, and the impressive, dazzling wine? Well, Mr. Chow has been entertaining his starry clientele for nearly 40 years now, so perhaps he doesn’t even know.