Mr Chow doesn't look like a great Chinese restaurant. It looks like a great Italian restaurant. It should be called Mr Ciao, it's so Italian. It has that perfect agrodolce mix of formality and eccentricity, of pride and humour, of service and style. With its immaculate leather banquettes, white marble floor and metallic drop lamps suspended over every table, the dining-room has the polished jewelbox intimacy of some of the more elegant restaurants of Turin or Rome. The welcome ritual is such that you are virtually carried to your table by formally dressed, mostly Italian waiters. But it's the fact that it serves Chinese food and not Italian that has always made Mr Chow devastatingly chic.
I have long believed there is a mysterious link between the cultures of Italy and China. After all, each country can be roughly divided into two, with one half eating rice and the other growing wheat and eating noodles. One half loves chilli and spicy food, while the other half's cuisine is milder and more subtle.
Both have produced citizens who are food mad, have developed senses of humour, a penchant for gambling and strong family ties, with a respect for the elderly and a passionate love of children. This madly generalist claim is confirmed by the fact that all of my Chinese friends are crazy about Italian food and all of my Italian friends love Chinese food.
So Mr Chow works for me. I'm happy ordering dumplings and noodles from a waiter who says things like allora and prego. Michael Chow obviously felt the same way when he first opened the restaurant in 1968, immediately attracting an A-plus list clientele that included the likes of Jackie O, Mick Jagger, the odd Beatle and Marlene Dietrich.
The menu (given only to newcomers, as regulars just have what they had last time) is a quirky, varied list driven by the imperial cuisine of Beijing and the somewhat gutsier flavours of Shanghai cooking, with Cantonese banquet dishes and dim sum dumplings thrown in for good measure. Some of the names of the dishes are romantic and traditional (gambler's duck, velvet chicken, drunken fish), while others are enigmatically humorous. The "special lobster" is special because it is, in fact, made with prawns. The most famous dish at Mr Chow is the Peking duck at a somewhat staggering £34 per person, which must be ordered for at least three people.
The food is properly cooked and prettily served. Jade har gau (£8), crescent-shaped dumplings filled with good, sweet prawns, are nearly as fine as the benchmark dumplings served at the near-by Royal China. Equally impressive are the small, crisp, doughnut-shaped scallion pancakes (£8), where the combination of a generously squelchy spring-onion filling and the dry crunch of the pancake itself is one of the finer textural moments of Beijing cooking.
Normally I wouldn't be seen dead with fried rice, as only steamed white jasmine rice is subtle enough to be a bed for the disparate flavours of a Chinese meal. But Mr Chow's Hang-Chow-style fried rice, just touched with a little egg and shrimp, has none of the oily fried aftertaste so typical of the genre.
My order is intelligently grouped by the staff, so that the starters are soon followed by a banquet in miniature. Three small silver serving platters line up in the centre of the table – one of crisp Cantonese roast duck (£18), one of drunken fish (sole poached in rice wine, £17.50) and one of the mandatory green veg (£7).
The duck is an absolute treat, with its gloriously crisp, golden, lacquered skin contrasting beautifully with the almost spreadable quality of the relaxed meat. The sole is slightly odd, its quite large, moist shards of flesh suspended in one of those gloopy, transparent Chinese wine sauces that look worse than they taste. Stir-fried ong choy (water-spinach stems) are neatly cut on the diagonal to resemble fluorescently green penne pasta and taste clean and grassy.
By now it's 9pm, show time at Mr Chow. The chef appears at a makeshift bench and slams a giant lump of oiled dough on to it with admirable viciousness. He then stretches it repeatedly, twirling it in his hands like skipping rope until suddenly the dough separates into perfectly long, thin noodles. How uncool is that? Everyone – New York brokers, Japanese families with au pairs, Concorde refugees – is secretly impressed.
After that, the dessert trolley is anticlimactic, a series of bought-in tarts, chocolate mousse, oranges in grenadine (good grief) and lychees in syrup. Sure enough, a slice of berry crumble is madly out-of-season, firm, anonymous and slightly floury. Why do it? Just go home and have a Terry's Chocolate Orange instead.
Nevertheless, it is easy to understand why Mr Chow is a relevant, successful and iconic London dining institution. There is nothing tired about it, nothing dusty and nothing overly cynical apart from the prices, and as a result, it is packed every night with those who are, have been and will be capable of paying the price. The food is refined, the staff are endearingly eccentric, and the whole experience is very Italian.
Now all we need is a great Chinese restaurant with very good bucatini all'Amatriciana, and life would be perfect.
Mr Chow, 151 Knightsbridge, London SW1, tel: 020 7589 7347. Open daily 12.30-3pm and 7pm-12am. Around £150 for two, including wine and serviceReuse content