Out for a Peking duck
EATING OUT MR CHOW 151 Knightsbridge, London SW1X 7PA. Tel: 0171 589 7347. Open daily for lunch from 12.30 to 2.45 and for dinner from 7 to 11.45. Set menus for pounds 22, pounds 24 and pounds 28 per person. Major credits cards accepted
Sunday 21 January 1996
Our excitement had been whipped up by a press release explaining not only that Mr Chow's is "the most influential restaurant in the world" and "the most star-studded restaurant during the past three decades", but that "regulars include" Orson Welles and John Lennon. We were wild to mingle with the long-feared-dead celebrities: the more so since the London Mr Chow's had recently been relaunched by Michael Chow himself: returned to the Knightsbridge original from his branches in Beverly Hills and New York.
On booking the table I made an unseemly putsch to be seated upstairs since Mr Chow's "star system for seating" is well known: upstairs for celebs, down for the plebs. Picture our humiliation, then, at being ushered to a table downstairs. For a heady moment we thought the gentleman at the only other occupied table might be Mike Flowers but it was a false alarm and we all bravely pretended we didn't mind being in a nil celebrity situation while stars of unimaginable rarity - Greta Garbo, perhaps, Buddy Holly, Charlie Chaplin, Leonardo da Vinci - were kissing each other above us.
Still it was lovely and quiet downstairs, relaxed and elegant, with modern art on the walls and many waiters discreetly yet immediately to hand at the slightest raising of an eyebrow. Mr Chow's was launched in 1968, when Chinese restaurants were still a novelty here. Its trademark was the marriage of Chinese food with European style: French desserts, a European wine list, dumplings and noodles listed under "pasta".
With ethnic authenticity currently so much the thing and everyone eating happily from rusting Indian cooking pots and Japanese versions of the plastic sewing tray, the emphasis on European accessibility - Wedgwood on the table and leather Hermes menu holders - seemed surprisingly old- fashioned. Subtle changes to "the timeless design" of the decor had been promised, and yet a detail here, a detail there - a Seventies-style spotlight, a leatherette curtain, worn tiles in the centre of the room - were at once a reminder that time not only exists but waits for no man, and that it is sometimes possible for decorative changes to be too subtle to sweep a city completely off its feet.
"Is it very busy upstairs?" we asked our waiter wistfully, startled, as we looked up, to see a line of what looked like bronze headless piglets hanging from the ceiling. He explained that the upstairs was closed tonight through lack of business. By this time four or five other tables were being dined at, but mainly by older couples who looked as though they had come up for the day shopping and were staying in the nearby posh hotels, rather than just having flown in for a four-day love-in on the King's Road or from a brainstorming with Tarantino.
We were all, however, in for a delicious feast. The bronze headless piglets above us turned out to be bronzed Peking Ducks - a speciality requiring 24 hours airing, frying, baking and honey coating, and normally 24 hours notice, but here available at just 40 minutes, for a minimum of three people. At pounds 28 per person the duck could hardly be described as a value choice, but it seemed irresistible. The price includes a first course (at around pounds 4-pounds 8) and an Of Course (pounds 10.50-pounds 16.50) for each person though not - rather meanly - coffee or the pounds l a head "cover charge". And as our waiter pointed out, many people find three starters and three main courses too much on top of an entire duck.
I began with the Mr Chow noodles, a hearty plateful with a consistency more than usually reminiscent of spaghetti. My friend was very keen on his dumplings, with their delicate flavours and contrasting crispiness and softness: "They always remind me of my own cooking - when something gets so burnt on one side you decide it will be better not cook the other side at all."
We were very intrigued by my other dining companion's shark's fin soup, not, as we'd hoped, with a tiny fin parting its surface but dense and fibrous. "Absolutely delicious, not at all fishy, more like chicken" was the verdict. Seaweed, which had arrived as accompaniment, was fantastic. "I must have had this 200 times in my life and this is as good as it gets," she said of the deep-fried beef with sliced vegetable Of Course. Green prawns, though startling and space-age in appearance, were fantastic - an excellent flavour-blend with the creamy spinach-based sauce.
The climax of the evening, though, was the Peking duck: carved and daintily arranged with extreme elan at the table; served, like crispy duck, with pancakes, leeks and plum sauce but tender, moist and honeyed.
We all agreed it was superb Chinese food: you could absolutely taste as well as see why you were paying rather more you would in the friendly Chinese round the corner. Nevertheless, when the bill arrived at pounds l56 for three - even allowing for a pounds 24 bottle of Burgundy - we did think they should have thrown in the ghost of a famous celebrity.
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