When the urge to have Chinese food strikes and nothing will satisfy you until you get it, a visit to Mr. Chow’s should certainly be on your list. The combination of authentic cuisine in a beautiful, hospitable atmosphere was exactly the reason Bruce Chow spent a considerable sum to turn a vacant space into an elegant restaurant with big granite tables, intricately etched lamps and chopsticks adorned with shiny silver bands. Bruce and his son, James also own the Peking Garden, a takeout shop with a menu he says is “mostly Americanized Chinese food.” The Chow’s had always wanted to serve more authentic food, but not in the proverbial hole in the wall: Bruce says he never understood why so much great Chinese food was served in unattractive dining rooms. He felt that a classy setting would encourage more Americans to venture beyond sesame chicken.
But Bruce didn’t want to serve the food of his native Shanghai, saying that the more subtle flavors would be harder to duplicate without access to the exact meat and fish available in China. He believes that Sichuan food relies more on seasoning and is more easily replicated. He hired a team of Sichuan chefs and opened in May.
The extensive menu – complete with photographs – has some good options and some remarkable ones. If I were choosing a restaurant based entirely on the food, I would head to Lan Sheng in Columbia, where more of the dishes were extraordinary and the flavors were more nuanced. But Mr. Chow’s offers a better package deal: good food combined with a beautiful atmosphere and a hospitable wait staff.
Mr. Chow also has some of the best bar snacks you’ll find at any BYO – salty roasted peanuts and pickled carrots, broccoli and celery mixed with chili oil. But don’t snack too much. There is a lamb and a fish dish that is not to be missed. The carmelized lamb, sliced and flecked with cumin, melts in your mouth ($15.75). The fish — sea bass — is indeed “fresh-killed,” meaning alive in a fish tank until we doomed it with our order. Serving our bass so fresh resulted in the most delicate, almost translucent meat, all heaped with an intimidating pile of chilies and served bubbling in a silver dish fit for royalty ($31).
Another Sichuan staple, the notoriously sinus-clearing, peppercorn-filled tofu dish known as ma po tofu, here held nothing back – you might as well go and bury your head in peppercorns ($12.75). While many will appreciate the fire, we wished we could taste something beyond heat. Other dishes just as strongly flavored: the dan dan noodles served steaming hot ($5.50) and the tea-smoked duck, which bore red smoke rings and an intense aroma ($18.75).
I liked taking a hammer to a clay brick to reveal a whole duck confit stuffed with sticky rice and chestnuts, and liked the rich and oily meat I tore from the legs, but I didn’t love the dry breast meat, and I wouldn’t mind taking a hammer to the price $50.
As for side dishes — what’s kimchi fried rice doing on a Sichuan menu ($7.50)? It’s not the Korean kimchi, but a house-made pickled bok choy that plays splendidly off bits of rich house-smoked Chinese bacon. It certainly beat the Sichuan dumplings, saddled with thick, sticky skins ($5.50).
If you’re still hungry after all of this, you can cut that spice with some subtle taro soup ($3.50) or visit the bowl of fortune cookies near the entrance. But my top pick – recommended by a patient waiter – is the $3 bowl of delicate glutinous rice balls filled with a heavenly sweet black sesame paste, floating in a sweet rice soup.
There is a wine list, stocked with semi-obscure natural wines. In the five months the restaurant has been open, servers have memorized a few stock phrases, like “it goes well with our food” (imagine that), but have not learned which part of the corkscrew will remove a metal bottle cap, or when to stop pouring an unfiltered wine to keep sediment from sliding into the glass.
Altogether a comfortable, refined bistro that happens to have gold dragons with glowing red eyes on the walls. Servers are friendly; helpful with ordering a balanced meal not as helpful with wine.