"The chicken satays are amazing," said Carlton, our server, as he dropped off an amuse bouche of Philippe Chow's most famous dish at a table for two on a busy Saturday night. He was parroting New York Newsday's accolades, which were quoted in red on the menu like praise on a Broadway playbill.
Philippe by Philippe Chow, which opened in Boca Raton in August, is the sixth outpost featuring Chow's concept: fancified Chinese food, served on white tablecloths with silverware instead of chopsticks.
This idea isn't original. The Chinese-born Philippe Chow had moved to British-controlled Hong Kong as a teenager, then to New York City in 1979, where he began working at the über-trendy Mr. Chow — owned by Chinese-born, London-bred restaurateur Michael Chow. With a flagship location in London and another in New York, Mr. Chow was frequented by jet-setting A-listers like Mick Jagger, Ingrid Bergman, and Andy Warhol in the 1970s and '80s. Michael Chow understood that the guest list could be just as powerful as the menu.
Philippe by Philippe Chow
Philippe by Philippe Chow, 200 E. Palmetto Park Road, Boca Raton. Call 561-393-4666.
In 2005, Philippe Chow left Mr. Chow after 25 years and opened his own place, Philippe, employing a similar formula. He took some of the mellowest Chinese standards — such as won ton soup, lobster spring rolls, and Peking duck (nothing too spicy or exotic) — dressed them up, and charged triple what the dishes would cost in Chinatown. Thanks to a well-oiled P.R. machine, celebrities dropped in frequently, and when they did, it was sure to make the papers.
These days, Philippe has two restaurants in New York as well as outposts in L.A. and Mexico City. The Miami branch, scheduled to reopen on November 16, is in the process of relocating from the Gansevoort Hotel to a freestanding space on Ocean Drive. The new Boca outpost is the first "casual dining concept" from the chain. That means one thing: lower prices. Company execs say they got a great deal on the real estate and are passing savings on to the consumer. But the menu and the white tablecloth service remain the same, and the P.R. machine is at work here too: A restaurant spokesperson was sure to tell me that J. Lo ordered takeout last month.
Michael Chow still has his restaurants — in New York, London, Beverly Hills, Vegas, and Miami — and the two Chows have been in legal battles since 2009, when Michael filed a lawsuit against Philippe that is still "dragging along," according to a spokesperson at the Philippe Chow Restaurant Group.
Back to our plate, upon which two mini-paillards of chicken on a stick rested crosswise. Wearing an orange hue from a carrot-juice-based marinade, the satays were drizzled with an ochre puddle of peanut sauce. The savory-meets-sweet bite was just enough to whet an appetite.
The space lived up to Chow standards of glamour, with a dramatic contrast of black against white with red accents. A wine cellar and private dining room, both glass-enclosed, gave the building an open feel. Each night, a chef hand-pulls noodles in front of customers, adding an element of performance.
At the bar, guests spilled into the dining room. The soundtrack ranged from Pink Floyd to INXS. A ham-handed man in a white suit grabbed from a trough of spicy nuts. Four black-clad bartenders hustled back and forth. One woman sipped a gimlet of Plymouth gin, lychee, and basil. Her friend held a cosmo. "I'm going with an old-school cocktail," she joked. As they clinked glasses, liquid spilled over the rims to the floor.
It was the week of the Jewish holidays, so a group of about 30 New Yorkers had booked the private room, where they watched the Yankees spank the Tigers on a giant projection screen. Near the host stand at the entrance, managers in gray suits with Windsor-knotted ties and heavy specs wore earpieces like bouncers while stick-legged hostesses hedged the dining room. Servers, bussers, and runners hustled throughout the adjoining rooms, creating bottlenecks at doorways. Staffers politely twisted their torsos to let guests float past like counted sheep.
At our table, Carlton — a fastidious blond whose drawl betrayed his Alabama roots — introduced himself and delivered his spiel, describing Philippe as "a traditional Chinese restaurant." From our seats at a banquette, we could see a corridor of statuesque lovelies and the lively bar crowd. At a nearby table, a man who was clearly a Philippe Chow VIP wore a noisy striped shirt and '80s era, tech-nerd bifocals. His girth suggested a tandem love affair with food as well as his wife: a handsome, raven-haired woman in a kelly-green jacket. Many men stopped by to pay homage to him. Our table seemed like a front-row seat on the runway during fashion week.
Our attention turned from the scene when a second male server arrived at our table and stood by my friend awkwardly, as if he wasn't sure if we had been waited on. "Are you here to ask for my phone number?" she joked. He laughed just as Carlton swooped in, delivering her glass of Riesling and my Grüner Veltliner. "I know I'm not as pretty, but I can bat my lashes with the best of them," Carlton said.
"What should we order?" we asked. He offered two strategies: Order a salad, a lettuce wrap, a dumpling, and dessert. Or kill the dumplings and get an entrée to split. We considered the signature Peking duck ($60) but didn't feel like waiting the 45 minutes for it to cook.
"Do you have any Sichuan?" I asked. "I like those numbing peppercorns." He knew what I was talking about but said, "There's nothing really spicy here." He pointed instead to a savory beef with an oyster mushroom sauce. I passed. We told Carlton that we'd take his advice to go with the salad/wrap/dumpling/dessert — and that he should pick for us.
As we waited for our first dish, an Amazonian blond with a painted-on dress and plenty of vavoom visited the VIP before she and her pride of seven lithe women in black, animal-print dresses, moved on to the ladies room. When I went in a few minutes later, they were crowded in a single stall, like a clown car.
As the group exited stage right, a $12 crispy duck salad was delivered to our table. It consisted of a giant bowl of greens, plus duck that was as crisp as cracklings with dry flesh in the center. Carlton ran over. "Nooo! Don't eat that yet. You didn't get the sauce!"
He brought the missing hoisin sauce, which had the consistency of bean paste and the sweetness of dessert. But it didn't help this salad. In between arugula leaves sat filler pages of iceberg lettuce that added bulk to the salad. Though the crunchy duck skin was addictive, a sesame-soy marinade seemed not to have made its way onto the leaves. And it could have used something else — like vegetables.
As we chatted, servers expertly crumbed our table with a brush, laid down clean silver and plates, and dropped off the second course without interrupting us. The $15 lettuce wrap was a notch above a similar version at PF Chang's — a hash of beef and bitter zucchini, with a couple of repeats: that iceberg lettuce for the wrap and another serving of hoisin sauce. The sweet and bitter flavors clashed.
Carlton noticed our barely touched dish. "Would you care for something else?" he asked. Nah. That dish hadn't worked, but it was part of the adventure to try his picks.
When the Yankees game ended, the large party of New Yorkers moved to the outdoor bar, and we snacked on six pork dumplings ($9) as we rubbernecked. "Ooh, vinegar," said my friend when she tasted the dipping sauce listed as "Mr. Chow's supreme broth" that was heavy on the acid finish. We did without it. The pan-fried dumplings were moist and meaty on their own.
Carlton stopped by the table often as the evening came to a close. By midnight, the crowd had thinned enough for him to chat with us at length. Since he'd worked at the Philippe Chow in Miami for a year, we asked him to compare the two outposts. The service and menu were the same, he said — but the Boca prices are 30 percent cheaper than Miami. And the "Boci," as he called the Boca clientele, "they're nicer," he said. "And they tip better."
Before our farewell, he brought dessert — a red velvet minicake. While more decadent than a dish of orange slices, it made an impression because it was served with layers of cream-cheese frosting as thick as those on a bagel from Barney Greengrass on the Upper West Side. The cake in between was bland.
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Yet bland was forgiven when we were presented with homemade chocolate fortune cookies. We cracked them open and read our fortunes. "Passionate kiss like spider's web, lead to undoing of fly," read one.
"I'll tell you this much," said Carlton, "this is not a rated-G restaurant."
When we strolled out the door, having paid about $70 for dinner for two — not bad for three courses and drinks on a Saturday night — I looked to the corner of North Federal Highway and Palmetto Park Road, now asleep, save for the changing streetlight that signaled to no one. "It's so suburban," I said, as valets dressed like b-boys in side-cocked, stiff-brimmed caps fetched our cars.
Gesturing at the plantation fans that spun like propellers overhead and the Grecian fountain at the restaurant's corner, my friend corrected me. "This," she said, "this here is South Florida."