Letter of the Week – Hardly Charmed by MR. CHOW
(Many remain skeptical of the price-to-value benefit of this bird)
ELV note: When he isn’t saving children’s lives, Dr. Mark is a frequent visitor to Vegas and one of our “regs.” He’s also one of those food lovers who eats to live and lives to eat, so his thoughtful opinions are always welcome, even if they happen to disagree with our own, infallible, unimpeachable, invariable finicality. To say he was less than impressed with Mr. Chow is an understatement. To say that the Mr. Chow Peking Duck Experience might be a tad heavy on the wallet, the waistline and the pretension is something he and I might be able to agree upon. Next time he’s in town, we will have to get a group and go peek in on this Peking duck together. In the meantime, read and decide for yourself.
Sometimes, things turn out just as you expect. Sometimes, they can even be far, far worse. I met up with an old friend in town on a recent Friday night. Of course, we were pondering that most important question: Where should we have dinner?
Discovering we were both overdue for some quality Peking duck, I recalled your recent review of Mr. Chow, as well as you sharing with me that it is in your top three locations for this dish on The Strip. We made a reservation for the two of us for 6:30 that evening.
I must confess; I was suspicious to begin with. And while that can undoubtedly skew one’s perception, what followed was such a comical series of “are you *@%#ing kidding me?” moments, that I must believe even the most unbiased of witnesses would have left shaking his or her head.
To start, I am generally apprehensive about the “Hollywood Hip” establishments. As I find them to be more flash than substance. I hear people say things like “That’s where (insert the name of some celebrity wholly undeserving of common recognition) dined when they were in town last week!” and I scratch my head wondering why that should appeal to me (think N9ne Steakhouse circa mid-2000s). This of course is further compounded by visiting the website, where you can watch a video of Mr. Chow calling himself a “Cultural ambassador to China”. What can you NOT do on the website? That’s right… See a menu! (https://www.caesars.com/caesars-palace/restaurants/mr-chow#.VtcWxvkrK70)
So, at 6:30, we walk and are seated at a table for two along the periphery. Calling this a dining table is a stretch. It was a small lounge table. Looking at the groups of five and six in the middle, I note their tables were at best appropriate for a group of four. “Hmm…” I think to myself, “Perhaps the Hollywood Hip are… smaller than I imagined”.
Then the moment of truth came. Craving that wonderful duck, we looked at the menu and there it was: “Peking Duck- $74 per person”. Steep, no doubt, but it’s a premium restaurant on The Strip, so it’s exactly what we expected. And then we saw the line underneath: “Minimum three people”.
Wait, what? There are at least a dozen restaurants on The Strip offering this dish for two people. So what’s the deal? Is the Pekin variety of duck Mr. Chow gets somehow bigger than everyone else’s? No. So, basically, he just hasn’t “cracked the technology” yet restaurants all over the world discovered before he was born.
We inquire further. We are told we “can” get it, but it would be the three-person price (so we’re now up to $223). Why so much? Well, at Mr. Chow, when you order Peking Duck, you first get three starters (not duck), and then three entrees (also, not duck) before they finally bring you the duck. So, travel the world from Beijing to Paris to Cape Town, and you can get a magnificent two-course meal of Peking duck. It’s a timeless approach that always leaves people happy. But the mighty Mr. Chow can’t seem to handle that. Mind you, we would have ordered more than simply the two courses. But six additional items for two people might be pushing it.
Add to this the traditional Chinese ambiance they have established with The Eagles “Heartache Tonight” blasting overhead, and the complete lack of chopsticks on any table within sight, and maybe we should have taken the hint that this wasn’t going to go well and move on. But, The Strip is built on bad decisions, so we decided to power through!
Knowing that even with our proclivity for excess, we weren’t about to tackle six dishes before duck, we made our next great mistake. I asked the server “What would you suggest”? What followed were five dishes: two starters, two entrees and a side of shrimp fried rice.
The starters: Chicken Satay. This is a signature dish, and it was good, albeit somewhat unremarkable. It might have been the best chicken satay I’ve had in years. But at the end of the day, chicken on a stick is, well, chicken on a stick. The second dish was their pot stickers. Heavy on the doughy dumpling, and extremely light on the filling. I was left longing for China Poblano.
The entrée: Mai Mignon. Essentially a warm (definitely not hot) filet sliced and covered in an overly sweet hoisin based sauce. Because when I think Chinese, I think filet mignon! And lastly, since we weren’t about to down six courses and a whole duck, she brought us the “Gambler’s Duck”. Described by our server as similar to Peking duck, but with a slightly crispier skin: what arrived was a half duck with exceptionally crispy skin. Much as the skin on any other piece of poultry might be should you leave it in a warm oven for roughly the length of a baseball season.
While attempting to salvage something from the meal (the bottled sparkling water was excellent!), we were suddenly jolted by an absurdly loud “BANG! BANG! BANG!” Looking up and wondering if our next move was to hit the floor for cover, we saw a member of the kitchen staff standing nearby with a pile of dough on a rolling table, slamming a noodle hangar against the surface. What followed was an “attempt” (and I use that word loosely) at hand pulling noodles. As the flour made a cloud around him, and he utterly slaughtered a timeless tradition of culinary artistry, I could only think of Beijing Noodle No. 9 just below us. There, you can watch how this is supposed to happen. Pro tip: If you’re going to put on an unsolicited floorshow, don’t suck at it.
Finally, the server returned to our crowded lounge table. She looked down at the half eaten filet, and the virtually untouched duck. Next, God-as-my-witness, she looked at us, smiled and asked “So, was it all EXTRAORDINARY?’ (Way to read a table!). Gently letting her down, we expressed how dry the duck was (how I wish I took a picture), to which she replied in disbelief as if she were blind, “Really? Would you like me to bring you another one?” The axiom ‘the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result’ came to mind as I pictured the other half of this sorry animal still sitting in the oven. Unsurprisingly, we passed.
Now longing only to put this experience behind us, we declined dessert. Upon receiving the check, we were out $270 for two drinks and a woeful meal.
A quick Uber ride to Tacos el Gordo allowed us to rebound for a mere $12!
Now, I am loath to judge a place too harshly too soon. But this isn’t exactly Mr. Chow’s first Rodeo. And at these prices, there simply can’t be that much of a learning curve. Now back home in Massachusetts, I am left with only one thought: Damn! I really want some Peking duck!
Next time, Jasmine or Wing Lei it is!
Other random observations:
Perhaps it was our mistake in going with only two people as this is better for a large party. But that only further confuses the issue of the myriad of tiny, tiny tables.
More arrogance on the website: “unlike anything currently in Las Vegas, MR CHOW guests enter through a set of private elevators located on the casino floor level”. Unlike anything else in Vegas… Except Ruth’s Chris, Binion’s Steakhouse, Hugo’s Cellar (in fairness, they have stairs too)…