Sunday, January 30, 2011

restaurant week diary: mr. chow

"It's sad," I said to my friends as we dug into our Restaurant Week meal at Mr. Chow in Tribeca on a jam-packed Friday night.

"What's sad?"

"Think about all those celebrities in Hollywood ... this is what they think good Chinese food is," I replied. I like to think of myself as an ambassador of Asian cuisine of sorts to my non-Asian friends, taking pleasure in bringing them to out-of-the-way spots with delicious food they'll crave and come back for even without me. It's not often that I feel sorry for Playboy bunnies and Kardashians, but if this is what they think good Chinese food is, that's pretty tragic. 

I can't seem to learn the lesson that Chinese food is best eaten in Chinatown and not at some chi chi spot. I realized this when I went to Buddakan and found that their soup dumplings didn't even come close to Joe's Shanghai's. I'm sorry to say it, but Mr. Chow's food cannot hold a candle to our 4AM Chinatown stalwart, Hop Kee. The consolation is that we gave the spot a whirl during Restaurant Week and didn't have to break the bank to do it.

The glam interiors are a nice change from dingy Ctown tabletops, and the pushy tuxedo-clad Italian waiters easier on the eyes than pushy Chinese waiters. The blaring club music during dinner service reminded me of Bagatelle in the Meatpacking District; I half expected the patrons to start dancing on chairs while waving chicken satay in the air. The cachet of Mr. Chow is definitely in the glamorous ambience that hints at celebrity.

Not having done my research, I at least thought that we would be given nicely plated Chinese food for the price. Wrong. Mr. Chow does family style-servings much like the aforementioned Hop Kee. Our group of five was given all four options for appetizers and entrees available for Restaurant Week. The portions were fair and there was definitely more than enough food to go around.

The first starter I tried was the chicken satay, which took me aback. I didn't realize satay existed in Chinese cuisine but hey, there's such a thing as Filipino barbeque so I guess anything's possible. It tasted like lemon chicken placed on a skewer and dunked in some sweet mayo-based, peanut-inflected sauce.
The famous Mr. Chow Noodles reminded us of Filipino-style spaghetti with its handmade rice noodles topped with a sweet ground meat sauce. If an authentic Chinese dish like this does in fact exist, it explains how Filipinos came to butcher Italian spaghetti so spectacularly (Let me be clear that I do actually love and occasionally crave the sacrilegious Filipino preparation of spaghetti—but I wouldn't involve anyone who isn't Filipino in this).
The jade dumplings brought me back to that episode of Top Chef All Stars where the cheftestants commandeered a dimsum restaurant. "This is white people dimsum," grumbled one cranky Chinese lady. I can commiserate.
The appetizer that we liked best was the squab with lettuce because it tasted good and had some discernible texture (mainly because it's tough to mess up fresh lettuce).
Then came the entrees. The most popular dish on the menu is green prawns. I initially thought it was broccoli and was happily surprised to find out otherwise. Again, it's not bad but the texture is generally mushy and there's no sophisticated technique used to turn that prawn green—just food coloring here, people. I would take Hop Kee's walnut shrimp over this, any day.
The Drunken Fish, fresh sole poached in wine, tasted okay. But the textures were quite dreadful. The fish is mushy, not flaky, and obscured by some frightening-looking, cornstarch-heavy sauce. 
I think this was supposed to be crispy beef and it was tasty, though we also concurred it seemed someone in the kitchen had a heavy hand with the monosodium glutamate. 
The velvet chicken was inconsequential, and the green beans might've tasted like the dish Jamie and Antonia cooked in the Top Chef dimsum episode. Enough said.

For desert, we were given yummy raspberry and vanilla gelato—the only dish that looked right being dished out by the primarily Italian staff. What can I say about this ... they did a good job scooping it from the container? It was nice, but had absolutely nothing to do with Chinese cuisine.
What can I say? I enjoyed our dinner because of the great company and because it's good fun to get dolled up and check out "the scene" every so often. But if you come here for the food, the only feeling you'll have at the pit of your stomach is the sickening sensation of getting ripped off. If you must go, go for Restaurant Week and pay a negligible $35 per head. But if you're looking for good, comfort Chinese food, know that the $35 is better spent at a hole in the wall farther east below Canal Street.  

Mr. Chow is located at 121 Hudson Street, New York, NY 100013. Tel. (212) 965-9500

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