Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Decor Matters - At Least Just This Once

When it comes to eating at restaurants for me it’s all about the food and never about the decor.  Until now.  But it’s not a case of finally appreciating an exquisite decor, but rather being annoyed by an incredibly unbelievable dining setting..

Philippe Chow has to have the most weird and bizarre layout of any restaurant I’ve been to, so much that it detracts from any dining experience there may be (and which itself is very limited).   When you step through the doors you are confronted by an interior alley (actually more like a back alley) without a rooftop, with the podium on the left, the bar and small dining area on the right.  Continuing down the alley there is a mess hall like dining room painted in black and white on the left, and the kitchen door on the right, so as you sit at your table you get a great view of the wait staff coming in and out of the kitchen, and if you go to or leave your table, you have a great chance of bumping into a server.   There appears to be a private dining area at the end of the hall.

Instead of paying more attention to the meal, I was sitting there wondering what they were thinking when they designed the place.    Maybe they thought painting everything black would hide flaws, but that's not the way it works. If they were trying to be Beverly Hills hip they completely missed the mark. Maybe would have been hip back in the 70's but I can't get away from the tackiness and sloppiness of it.    All this might be unforgivable if we were talking about a hole in the wall dive that serves fantastic food.  But this is Philippe Chow in Beverly Hills, where the menu items run three times the price of what you would pay for Chinese food in the San Gabriel Valley that is three times better. 

Of course I’d rather not dwell on the negative so I would like to say some positive things about Philippe Chow.  The food wasn’t nearly as bad as I had expected and the $20 lunch special was reasonably priced for Beverly Hills, if they hadn’t run out of dessert and for which they gave us a raincheck, as if we’ll ever go back to this house of horrors.  Indeed the entrees, breaded fried salmon and velvet chicken, were quite interesting even if the dishes themselves missed the mark. And the satay chicken was actually pretty good, though the deep red batter was a little disconcerting. 

Also, I was happy to get the chance to eat here because when we arrived for our 11:45am reservation the restaurant was locked tight, which led me to assume they were out of business.  Fortunately we saw a construction worker inside and when we waved at him, he came to tell us that they didn’t open until noontime, which makes you wonder why they accept 11:30 and 11:45 am reservations.  And since the wait staff didn’t arrive until the noontime opening, he let us in, brought us menus and solicited our orders.  (It turns out he was part of the dinner crew and was daylighting as a handyman.  Nonetheless I had never been served at a restaurant by somebody dressed like one of the Village People.)  

Perhaps our thoughts about the decor were overly influenced by the fact that we were there in the daylight, where based on the fact that there were no other lunchtime diners the entire time this may well be a dinner restaurant, and at night the cheap and sloppy look of the premises is obscured by darkness.  But then I read that at night the interior is lit up in red lights, so it's probably even sleazier.

Finally I want to reiterate how happy I was to finally eat here, since a previous attempt to dine at Philippe Chow two months previously was postponed by rain--literally since we arrived to a flooded restaurant after a brief late winter rainstorm, without being timely notified that our reservation was cancelled.   (Whoever designed this restaurant without completely enclosing it must have listened to "It Never Rains In Southern California" one too many time.)    That's why my heart sank when the restaurant appeared to be locked up when we arrived for our reservation.    After all, based on these comments, this place could easily go out of business at any time.

[Thanks to Judy Isozaki who was equally taken aback by the premises and co-authored portions of this piece.]

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Ten Thumbs Up! The Search For General Tso, the movie

As I have mentioned in the past, despite all my musings about food I have written a grand total of one restaurant review about a specific restaurant, and that was back in 1977.  So I’m now matching that number for movie reviews in this short review of the new film The Search For General Tso, which opened last month at the TriBeCa film festival and will be making its way around the independent film festival circuit.  My feelings about this movie are unrelated to the fact that I’m one of the interviewees–it’s a fantastic movie even (or perhaps especially) without me.  

For my California friends, I do need to make this prefatory remark.  General Tso’s Chicken is a sweet, spicy, savory dish made with deep fried chicken nuggets.  It is seldom seen in California.  Indeed Mrs. Chandavkl and her cousin who saw the movie with me at TriBeCa had never eaten the dish before, until we found Chinese Fast Wok Restaurant around the corner from the screening in Chelsea after we watched the movie.  Few, if any of my family and friends in California have ever had the dish, as it seems to have been pre-empted out here by the sweeter orange chicken dish, popularized by Panda Express.  But if you move east from California, General Tso’s Chicken is one of the most ubiquitous dishes found in Chinese restaurants in the U.S.

Ostensibly, The Search For General Tso deals with the mystery of the origins of General Tso’s Chicken, a standard Chinese restaurant dish in much of the United States, and the ultimate success in ascertaining where the dish came from creates a highly satisfactory conclusion to the movie.  Yes, in a progression from New York to China and back, even involving one of the descendants of General Tso, the creator of the dish is found and interviewed, as is the restauranteur who took the dish and ran with it, creating perhaps the signature dish of the secondary, non-Cantonese wave of Americanized Chinese food. 

But the movie is much more than that.  It is the story of the struggle of Chinese Americans against racial hatred and enmity to ultimately find a place in America.  Of immigration laws which prevented Chinese (singled out over every other nationality) from migrating to the United States for decades.  Of the Cantonese roots of the Chinese American community and Chinese food in America which only diversified to include Chinese of other regional origins after the repeal of Chinese Exclusion.  A story of how Chinese restaurants and Chinese food developed in the United States, and how the Chinese evolved from mass targets of scorn to a measure of acceptance.  Ask David Leong, Springfield, MO’s creator of the regional favorite Springfield cashew chicken, how long it took to gain that acceptance, as when opening his first restaurant in the 1960s his restaurant was bombed before it even opened.  (Not to mention local bankers who refused to loan him the money to start his restaurant.)   Through interviews with academics, writers, chefs, restauranteurs, food critics and more, Ian Cheney concludes the search for General Tso, in a tale that tells a much larger story.

In bringing author Jennifer 8 Lee’s search for General Tso to the movie screen, filmmaker Ian Cheney has done so much more.  As I told him at the post-screening Q&A in front of the sold out audience at the Bow Tie Cinemas in Chelsea, “As a Chinese American, I want to thank you for telling our story.”