Not so long ago, in a neighborhood not so far away… Chow Wars!
The Melrose space formerly occupied by the late, lamentable restaurant Dolce has a new tenant: Philippe Chow. With branches in New York, Miami and D.F. (Mexico City), Philippe Chow looks to extend its high-concept operation in the L.A. area.
Serving upscale Chinese cuisine at extremely upscale prices, Philippe Chow L.A. is still in its infancy, having just opened earlier this month. Already, it has been served with a lawsuit by – you guessed it – Michael Chow (of Mr. Chow fame in Beverly Hills). This is reminiscent of the “Wolfgang Wars” not so long ago (also in Beverly Hills, interestingly), between Wolfgang Puck & Wolfgang Zweiner. As many may recall, Wolfgang Puck fired the opening salvo when he brought suit against Wolfgang Zweiner, essentially claiming that ‘This town ain’t big enough for the two of us.’ Since then, however, the two Wolfgangs have somehow coexisted.
How, then, will the Chow Wars turn out? Well, to partially help in answering this question, Mrs. J.L. & I made a reservation for 8:30PM this past evening at Philippe Chow L.A. to see if it’s worth all the hype.
Street parking was plentiful on Melrose on a Sunday night, though valet parking is available. Upon arriving (15 minutes early), we were cordially greeted by the hostess, who sat us at our table right away. An added nice touch was when she asked Mrs. J.L. if the room was too cold – she offered to talk to the manager if it was (it wasn’t). The dining room was about half full. Not bad, for a Sunday night when I half-expected that all the usual hipsters would be at the Rose Bowl, watching U2.
Décor: The bright red booths lining the walls accented the black walls of the bar, dark brown of the bamboo partitions, and white moldings. The lighting was dark, and the eclectic soundtrack was not overly loud. The bar area sports a small flat-screen TV, and appeared to be good for intimate conversation. There is a dark “private” banquet room, with a long-table, flanked by the wine cellar.
Menus were quickly distributed - Wine menu, Cocktail menu, and Dinner menu. Our server informed us to expect a 45-minute wait, if we decided to order their famous 7-lb. Peking duck. This was acceptable to Mrs. J.L. & I. Each course/plate arrived at a reasonable pace.
We’re used to having tea with our Chinese food - Well, Mrs. J.L.’s jasmine tea (served in a large tea bag in a small non-refillable porcelain cup, and not in a teapot) was certainly not complimentary. But it was served expeditiously.
Our aperatifs included two Bar Chef’s Specialties: First, a Mango Iced Tea (nothing special) and second, a “Philippetini” (lychee, triple sec, pineapple – Quite good). Service overall was quite cordial and unhurried. The manager made sure we were comfortable throughout our meal.
Now, on to the food (the menu for the New York location is accessible via their website, and L.A. prices were mostly identical). Portions were large enough to be shared for 2 or 3 people:
Corn and crab meat soup ($12): A large bowl. Light and tasty. No trace of MSG. Relatively generous with crab meat. A promising start.
Scallion pancakes (appetizer, $12): Four quarter slices of green onion pancakes, AKA tsung yeoh bing (蔥油餅). Meh. Nothing special, except the price. I could have much better for much less in the SGV.
Beef satay ($19): Why the heck am I ordering satay in a Chinese restaurant? Because it has Chef Chow’s “famous cream sauce”. (?!) Three skewers of tender beef with said cream sauce were plainly presented on a plate. While the beef was tasty, the sauce didn’t add or subtract from the taste - The ingredients in this simply didn’t “mesh”. Sticker shock is starting to set in…
“Mr.Cheng’s Noodles” ($16): Hand-pulled noodles in pork or veal sauce (we chose pork, cuz that’s old skool). This was essentially zha jiang mian (炸酱麵). It was presented with a side of fresh thin-sliced cucumber. The pork sauce was good, but the noodles were a tad too soft and lacked “bite” (i.e. no Chinese ‘al dente’). An acceptable dish, but again, at this price, it should have been better.
Next, the main courses were served:
“Green prawns” ($64, $32 for a half-order): Yes, $64 for a full order! Cashew nuts, water chestnuts, peppers, mushrooms - This was a visually interesting dish - The prawn has been colored green by a pesto-like sauce, but without any change in the shrimp taste. The result: A dish otherwise identical to the cashew prawn served in most other Chinese restaurants (but at a fraction of the cost here).
Drum roll please: Chef Chow’s award-winning famous Peking duck ($75) was served! Two chefs accompany the dish out from the kitchen. The duck is sliced tableside by the chef. It looks great. The slicing is quite good - Each slice has some skin, some lean meat, with no duck fat (for better or worse). The accompaniments include a bamboo steamer full of (refillable) piping hot thin flour tortilla wrappers (NOT the foldable steamed buns), Hoisin sauce, and thin-cut cucumbers and scallion shreds. The diner makes his/her own duck wrap.
The verdict on the Peking duck at Philippe Chow - Very good! It’s the least greasy Peking duck I’ve had in L.A., without compromising any of the gustatory joys of this classic dish. Yes, the skin is not as crispy. But in return, it retains more “duck flavor” than if the skin had been more cooked to a crisp. The hot tortillas are well-made in a bamboo steamer, and the diner can request free (!) refills on these. Yet, is this duck worth $75? Maybe… just for the novelty of trying it once.
There is a show, too! The music was temporarily hushed, and the lights turn up… The noodle chef emerged from the kitchen with a noodle board and noodle dough. He proceeded to demonstrate Chinese technique of hand-pulling noodles. The whole act took about 2-3 minutes, with the end-product (knife-cut, hand-pulled strands of noodles) being paraded about the dining room by a server, eliciting oohs & ahhs from various guests.
Desserts: 7 or 8 different desserts were presented by our server on a tiered stand. Mostly run-of-the-mill stuff, like apple crumble, chocolate layer cake, and a green tea crème brulee. We were too stuffed to remember all our selections at this point. Mrs. J.L. chose a red velvet cake and a cappuccino, while I had an apple crumble a la mode and a coffee. They were (again) not really anything special.
The cost? Our total bill (before tip) came out to $294.
Yes, $294 for a Chinese meal for two.
Service was excellent, so we left a generous tip. Philippe Chow L.A. can duke it out with Mr. Chow, for all we care. Watch your wallets here, my fellow ‘Hounds. Go and try the duck, but as for the rest, I’d suggest you head for the SGV.