"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.
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.