Whenever I take my friend Sy to Mr Chow, he tells me wonderful stories about London in the '70s, when the original Mr Chow there was the place, the first hip Chinese restaurant anywhere. "Everybody was there," Sy tells me, nostalgic for his glory years in the London film world. "All the film stars and directors, Mick Jagger and the music scene, architects and artists, high society." Owner Michael Chow would pull together exquisite little dishes for the dinners he presided over with wife Tina, a designer who moved easily in the worlds of art and fashion.
This year the Beverly Hills restaurant celebrates its 27th birthday. For Los Angeles, that is ancient. But far from being a Chasen's--where so many of the clientele died off that the restaurant had to close--Mr Chow seems forever young. Here you'll not only find old Hollywood (that Tony Curtis gets around), but a younger, plugged-in crowd from the film and television worlds, too. Every few years, a new generation discovers Mr Chow.
The appeal is Chinese comfort food, the familiar Cantonese-style cooking that most of us grew up on, but with more finesse than the corner takeout can muster.
The clubby atmosphere, the coziness of the long, narrow space, the waiters who greet you as if you're a long-lost friend, and, most of all, the star-spotting, conspire to give the restaurant the cachet of an in spot. It is, in fact, one of the few places where you can find paparazzi stationed in front most nights. Like the Hard Rock Cafe, Mr Chow is known all over the world, especially in Asia. Rich kids from Singapore or Taiwan come here to party. One night I noticed a group of Chinese businessmen filing past the bar from the private room upstairs straight into a tour bus idling outside.
The staff is adept at making guests feel as if they belong to a particularly smart and exclusive club. The way waiters try to order for you, though, gives me the feeling most customers are at sea even with this rudimentary Chinese menu. The fact that no one automatically gets chopsticks (you have to ask for them) says it all. It's been my experience that there's only a 50/50 chance you'll like what the waiter recommends, and if you're watching your wallet, you'll be better off ordering for yourself.
One of the things I've enjoyed at Mr Chow is when a cook demonstrates the art of noodle-tossing. It's pure mathematics in motion as he tosses the ball of dough, stretching and dividing it with each toss until, at the end, he holds up the spaghetti-like strands draped over a wooden dowel.
The Mr Chow noodles still have an appealing springiness, but they are weighted down with a bright, unnaturally red meat sauce. A better choice to start is the won ton soup (spelled wun tun on the menu). It's a light, flavorful broth, featuring won tons with finely minced stuffing trailing silky tails of dough. Hot and sour soup is perfectly respectable, too, moderately peppery and somewhat gelatinous in texture, and laced with loads of dried shiitake mushrooms, tree ear fungus, bamboo shoot and more.
The scallion pancake is crisp and not a bit greasy. Hand-pleated chicken or shrimp dumplings come three to a tier in stacked baby steamers. Though the dough is sometimes a bit thick, the dumplings are nevertheless credible. Dip them in crimson chile sauce poured out from a cruet. It tastes homemade.
One thing I couldn't help notice: When you order bottled water, waiters are constantly topping your glass off, yet if you order regular water, you end up flailing your arms in vain, waiting for somebody, anybody, to come and refill it. This is a problem that's not unique to Mr Chow.
As for main courses, white prawns are cloaked in a slippery and delicate egg-white sauce. The green prawns come in an innocuous green sauce with crunchy water chestnuts. The best seafood bet may be lobster two ways--you get your choice of black pepper or ginger sauce. Cut into morsels in the shell, the lobster actually tastes like lobster. I wasn't thrilled by the thick, glossy coating of sauce, which looked as if the cook had doused the shellfish in sweet and sour sauce. But it isn't sweet and sings with fresh ginger.
Velvet chicken is the blandest food you can imagine, but I see it has its fans at the next table. If you have a hankering for duck, don't go for the gambler's duck, which the waiter may describe as similar to Peking duck. The former is overcooked duck fried to a crisp and served in dried-out shreds with thin pancakes that could have come from a package. Get the three-course Peking duck instead, but everybody at the table has to order it. It's not exactly served table-side; the waiter shows off the whole duck, then whisks it away for carving. What you get is a platter of beautifully carved duck skin and the meat. You're left to make up your own little packet of palm-sized pancake dabbed with plum sauce and slivered scallions. I've had better Peking duck, but this is fine.
About the best item on the menu is fried rice. Don't knock it. When made well, it can be wonderful. At Mr Chow, it's fluffy and not at all oily, with little embellishment--just the occasional nugget of shrimp and a few chopped vegetables. The restaurant also does a good job with standard vegetables such as Chinese broccoli or snow pea sprouts.
Why am I not surprised that the wine list is heavy on showoff bottles such as Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Latour, Cristal Rose Champagne and Baron de Ladoucette Sancerre at elevated prices? But then who really expects to drink something interesting and affordable in a place like this? You're better off with a bottle of Tsing Tsao beer, or a martini. The bartender really knows what he's doing.
Dessert? Mr Chow has got Black Forest cake, bitter chocolate mousse and ricotta cheesecake. The only thing Chinese is litchi nuts, but most people are not ordering sweets.
I should point out, too, that when the bill comes, nothing is itemized; it's just the total for the food, with the bar tab separate. One night I notice that we were billed for two wines when we had only one bottle. When it was pointed out, it was immediately corrected. It's odd, because the time before I distinctly remember finding a bottle of water on my bill when I hadn't ordered or drunk any water. Mistakes happen. It's a good idea to check the bill anywhere you go.
Bottom line: If you order carefully, the food at Mr Chow is surprisingly decent, much better than Chow's second L.A.-area restaurant, Eurochow. And the people-watching is entertaining, to say the least.
344 N. Camden Drive
Rating: * 1/2
AMBIENCE: '70s Chinese bistro look, with hanging kites and quirky photos of owner Michael Chow. SERVICE: Brisk and professional. BEST DISHES: Scallion pancake, mixed dumplings, won ton soup, fried rice, white shrimp, lobster two ways, Peking duck. Appetizers, $5 to $17. Main courses, $22 to $31. Three-course Peking duck menu, $48 per person. Corkage, $20. WINE PICKS: Veuve Clicquot NV brut; 1998 Stags Leap Wine Cellars Merlot, Napa Valley. FACTS: Dinner daily. Lunch weekdays. Valet parking.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory..