Chow Time: Then & Now

Micaela Rossato

From Beijing duck to boldfaced regulars, an evening at the iconic Mr Chow still manages 30 years on to satisfy more than just a craving for good Chinese.

Last night I dreamed I went to Mr Chow. Through the infamous Lalique-handled doors on East 57th and the clatter of silver-tipped chopsticks below, I could not, at first, enter. The way had been barred—not by padlock and chain but by Andy and Halston and Steve Rubell, too. There were limousines in white, Vuitton-bling’d rappers, and Michael and Eva, who made the whole party sing.

Alas, it wasn’t entirely a dream.

Though the old Warhol gang has pretty much long since departed for that great big egg roll in the sky, the limos, the rappers, the logos, and the bling are still very much a part of Mr Chow 2008. So, too, owners Michael and Eva and expert maître d’ Brian Murati, who was 18 when Chow hired him as a food runner off the mean streets of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. And despite the Mr Chows in Beverly Hills, London, and most recently, TriBeCa, East 57th Street remains one of a kind. Others have tried to xerox the formula. One smarmy character wormed his way into a job in the kitchen, learned a few tricks of Michael’s menu (some of the food is amazingly simple), then disappeared, only to open his own place in the very same neighborhood. But caveat emptor: There are only two authentic Mr Chow restaurants in Manhattan—my favorite, at 324 East 57th, and the other, at 121 Hudson.

As a 26-year-old writer/reporter, I was sent by Travel + Leisure magazine to review Mr Chow when this haute arriviste opened in 1979. And I loved it. Immediately. A smash hit in London, Mr Chow had famously eschewed conventional crowd-pleasers like moo shu pork, General Tso’s chicken, and fortune cookies for French wines, green prawns, and dishes such as chicken Joanna, created especially by Chow himself for Donald Sutherland and named after the actor’s art-house film.

New York back then was still in the thrall of French grandees like La Côte Basque and La Caravelle, the phrase “authentic trattoria-style” had not yet become part of the gourmet vernacular, and Chinatown was still, as everyone knew, the center of “real Chinese.” It too often also meant hole-in-the-wall cheap, long lines, and questionable hygiene. Mr Chow was none of those. Chow had been educated at a London boarding school and studied to be an architect after his family left China, a place he knew pre-Mao as colorful, stylish, and delicious. His world had been cultured and enlightened, filled with actors, artists, politicians. It was one he would re-create at tableside. His was restaurant as theater: Reservations were impossible to come by, made as much for the scene as for the cuisine. Boldfaced regulars like Mick and Bianca treated the place as their own—and soon, of course, so did everyone else. “From the very beginning,” says Chow, “I missed my own culture, but I wanted to mix others as well. In London we opened in 1968—the time of the Rolling Stones, Bowie, the Beatles, and Hockney. The cultural scene was all mixed up—aristocrats, working class, artists, filmmakers, prime ministers, and grand dames. I wanted to embrace it all.” Which is just what he did on East 57th Street 11 years later. Here, on the first floor of the very same building where Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth had famously lived—and one block east, Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller—Chow created a playpen for art and artists, socialites and politicians, players and poseurs. These days the likes of Peter Marino and designer Carolyne Roehm live upstairs, and the neighborhood crowd includes Sigourney Weaver, E. L. Doctorow, and Tina Brown and Sir Harry Evans.

The rap has always been that the Chow cuisine is fake, a fraud, a fusion fantasy no real China man would call his own. Chow himself is vehement in his defense of both the quality and the pedigree of his cooking. “China has the greatest, most sophisticated cooking in the world,” he says. “It’s also a complicated cuisine that I have always treated with great respect and authenticity.” Chow loves telling you how there are a thousand ways to prepare an egg in China and how cooking there continues to evolve with time. He finds it sad that “people have been so conditioned to inferior Chinese, much of it Cantonese, that they really can’t appreciate true Peking cuisine, like the kind I grew up with.”

Albeit, Chinese accompanied by Veuve Clicquot, a double espresso, and a chocolate truffle cake. When Mr Chow opened, such juxtapositions were revolutionary: How dare he fuse the culinary cultures of France, Italy, and China! Was this a restaurant, the critics asked, or a designer showroom? What were they to make of Mr Chow’s sleek, well-dressed flotilla of handsome Italians who, to this day, navigate the room as if aboard Agnelli’s yacht? But Eva Chow, who checks the 57th Street reservation book on a regular basis from their home in Los Angeles’ exclusive Holmby Hills, is quick to point out that her Michael is no snob. “One of his absolute favorite restaurants,” she says, “was a tiny nondescript place over the Fifty-Ninth Street Bridge in Queens called Goody’s. It’s where we would go for basic Shanghainese home cooking.” (Goody’s closed a few years back, and the elegant Mrs. Chow, we must say, seems far more inclined toward a flute of her favorite Laurent-Perrier Rosé than a chipped cup of green tea.)

In his recent review of Mr Chow TriBeCa, New York magazine’s Adam Platt lambasted the menu as dating “from a distant, Paleolithic era when Chinese food still retained an element of mysterious cachet. Always, it’s outrageously expensive.” Admittedly, the price can be on the high side—upwards of $100 a person—and I’ve never seen a menu appear except at a customer’s request. Instead, this staff is trained to order for you—and some would say trained too well, as the tab can somehow, mysteriously and dangerously, bloom. That said, the Peking duck is among the best I’ve ever had, including those served in China, and I adore the fried seaweed and rice, green prawns, pot stickers, and steamed shrimp dumplings. The squid-ink noodles are created nightly by the restaurant’s master noodlist, and the minced squab with vegetables, wrapped in crisp leaves of iceberg lettuce, is heaven when schmeared with the sweet and sticky plum sauce.

After frequenting Mr Chow for close to ten years now (full disclosure: It’s right across the street from my apartment), I’ve grown accustomed to the sometimes overly casual service and the sly way in which one can be tempted (into bankruptcy) by just one flute of that expensive rosé Champagne, chilling in silver buckets, at $25 a pop (or more, depending on the bubbly). But rarely have I been disappointed. Mr Chow is where one goes to celebrate with friends. This room is part of pop culture’s history: Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat at the next table; Monica Lewinsky, during the height of Monicagate, celebrating her birthday with so many dumplings I thought she might pop. Chow and Murati both remember John and Yoko having their last dinner together here. And there was the time Stevie Wonder got the whole room singing “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” In other words, just another typical night at Mr Chow.

Explore More in Places That Still Matter