Hating Mr. Chow is practically a right of passage for most food writers.
This is understandable because the food at Mr. Chow has always been pretty much beside the point. Because Mr. Chow, for the uninitiated among you, has always been about the scene. But it’s also about a certain slice of social history, and the “exaggerated elegance” (Frank Bruni’s words) of Chinese cuisine. But most of all, Mr. Chow is about status. But that is about to change, at least in Vegas. Allow us to explain.
Once upon a time, in a food galaxy far far away, Mr. Chow was where Londoners and New Yorkers and Los Angelenos went to see people like the Aga Khan, certain eurotrash and Andy Warhol. It was also where the Aga Khan, certain eurotrash and Andy Warhol went to see each other. This was because at that singular point in time, Londoners and Los Angelenos were slaves to celebrity and a certain form of over-priced elitism. These things, along with tuxedo’d waitrons, a sleek, modernist decor, and prices that discouraged the hoi polloi, attracted them like a C-list actress to a swag bag. This velvet-rope exclusivity was at the heart of Mr. Chow’s empire from the get-go, and it’s been chugging along since 1968 with nary a fanny-packer in sight. There’s also been a chorus of hoots and raspberries from critics this entire time — scribes who see all style and no substance, and nothing but mediocrity on their plate.
Mr. Chow (the man and the restaurant) has been servicing the glitterati for forty years, serving them upscale versions of “Beijing cuisine,” eaten with forks and knives, in turgid, white-tablecloth surroundings that insulate them from the messy realities of real Chinese food and the unwashed masses who might enjoy it. At this, the man is a genius.
However, his genius is probably not ready for is the rabble that overruns our humble burg every day, and may soon overrun his restaurant.
Which raises the questions: Does Michael Chow know what he’s in for here? Does he expect Steve & Edie to waltz in with Mr. Vegas and immediately have Shecky Greene and Englebert Humperdinck begging for tables? Does he know that our version of royalty is a dyspeptic little man with all the charm of a carbuncle? And do Boy George and Billy Idol still have what it takes to infuse a resto with their über-coolness?
Who are we kidding? Mr. Chow is about as hip as a leisure suit, and most of our 42 million visitors wouldn’t know the Aga Khan from ConAgra.
Which is why it’s perfect for Las Vegas.
Yes, we said perfect, right down to this movable, hovering ceiling-thing that changes shapes and glows all pink and purple-y every thirty minutes for no discernible reason other than to distract you from how large your check is going to be.
It’s the stupidest thing we’ve seen in a restaurant since Steve Wynn spent thirty-six mil (that’s $36,000,000, no shit) making the walls move at Switch in the Encore. (Don’t remember Switch at Encore? Don’t worry, no one else does either.)
Yes, it’s dumber than a screen door on a submarine, but guess what? We loved it.
Yep, loved it, right down to the flattering lighting and the way it cantilevers into something before turning into something and then something else before you can ignore it again for the next thirty minutes.
We liked the moving, purple/pink, world’s largest ceiling ornament almost as much as we liked the world’s largest napkins:
…that are so big, and so crisp and so useful (for everything from wiping up hoisin sauce to folding into a throw pillow) that they fairly scream: “you’re going to pay through the nose for this dinner.”
Oh yes they are, and oh yes you will, but here’s the thing: that food might be damn expensive, but it’s also mighty damn tasty.
We opted for the $66/pp 3-course menu with a $36 supplement of “spicy pork” that was the Sichuan classic “twice-cooked pork” tarted up with better ingredients than you’ll find in your standard Spring Mountain Road Szechuan parlor like J & J Szechuan or Chengdu Taste. Was it worth double the price of what you pay at those outlets of authenticity? Not if you don’t enjoy stylish decor, better groceries, obsequious service, and napkins the size of bedspreads. Yes, if you do.
From the pork we proceeded to the best fried rice we’ve had in a coon’s age:
…nutty to a fault and creamy with shrimp cooked right and lots of silky egg shards. Even before it arrived, we had been charmed by these squid ink noodles that could teach the Italians a thing or two:
…and something called “Dressed Dungeness Crab” — described on the menu as “off the shell folded into a cloud of egg whites” $47.50 — and tasting like a crab lover’s dream:
Many have faulted Mr. Chow for Anglicizing and dumbing down its food to please the (hardly adventurous) palates of Londoners and Los Angelenos alike, but that pork was spiced aggressively and right, and the textures of the crab, squid, rice, and this dish of “green prawns”:
…put us in mind of a first class Hong Kong seafood dinner — one that values mouth-feel and purity of ingredients over strong seasonings.
Desserts ($14 each) were solid, with a dish of fresh lychees and a spectacular coconut cake (below right) topping the evening off:
All of this finery came to a cool 200 samolians, upon which we heaped another $132 for wine. Add a $64 tip and you have a $400 dinner for two.
To ask again: was it worth it? Well, yes if you see Mr. Chow as another return to a certain style of dining that Vegas (and much of America) kicked to the curb seven years ago in favor of small plates and uncomfortable everything. No, if you actually like undersized plates, bare tables, and swooning over some 28 year old chef’s “vision.” And if you’re the sort who’s going to carp about how you can get Sysco-special stir-fried chicken in Chinatown for one-third the price, don’t even think about showing up.
Here you get unabashed big deal meal service, a luminous setting, and a sense you are being fed by, and dining with, grownups. In that sense the place is like Carbone: a throwback in all the right ways, and perfect if you value feeling pampered at a price.
As for the star-studded, celebrity-fueled elitism that began this seven restaurant empire four decades ago, it may still be in full flower in London and New York, but the only thing that’s king in Sin City is Mr. Benjamin. Chow certainly recognizes this, and in that sense he’s only doing what every other star from Elvis to Sir Elton has done: bring his fading brand to Vegas to cash in.
Hard to blame him for that, and hard to fault a joint that brings a bit of eurotrash elegance to a town that’s never had any.
Just as I found it hard to fault the food, no matter what the rest of the world’s critics say.
In Caesars Palace Hotel and Casino
3570 Las Vegas Blvd. South