333 East 60th Street
Lighting: Low, flat in the back dining room
Noise Level: High but not unbearable
Wine List: Expensive, 120 bottles, well chosen for Chinese food
Credit Cards: All major
Price Range: Three-course lunch, $20.06; dinner, main course for two to three people, $32 to $65; tasting menu, $50 (six-person minimum)
Lunch: Monday through Friday, noon to 4 p.m.
Dinner: Daily, 5 to 11:30 p.m.
Brunch: Saturday and Sunday, noon to 4 p.m.
Philippe, a new Chinese restaurant on the Upper East Side, is a hot scene. The chef and co-owner is Philippe Chow, who was previously at Mr. Chow (no relation). On a recent evening, I ploughed my way through a rowdy mob of young bankers at the bar to a hostess standing by the computer screen, and I pointed to the name of our reservation.
“One moment.” She walked away. A few minutes later she returned. “Tisch?” For a crazy moment, I thought she was addressing me in German. ( Tisch means “table.”) “Tisch?” she repeated. I pointed again to the screen. She marched us through the main dining room, into a second dining room, to a table in the very furthest corner at the back. No matter; we ordered a round of drinks—and proceeded to wait for half an hour while one of my guests stood at the bar. She’d been told that we hadn’t arrived yet. After we’d ordered dinner, another hostess suddenly appeared at our table with a group in tow. She glared at us. “You’re sitting at these people’s table!”
The service at Philippe, which opened six weeks ago, is astoundingly—and often hilariously—bad. The staff seem to spend a good deal of time swabbing up spills on tables, floors and seats; strident hostesses block the door between the two dining rooms so servers can’t get through with the food; dishes you haven’t ordered are set down, while dishes you’ve ordered show up on the bill but not on your table (no less than three one night). The young waiters—a jovial bunch of fellows dressed in white jackets and brown ties, like stewards on a ship—seem to have come from the cast of The Sopranos. When you visit the bathroom, there’s a scrawled schedule of the staff on duty scotch-taped to the wall.
Despite all this, there’s much to like about Philippe. The restaurant inhabits two floors of a townhouse, in the space that used to be RM. It’s plain and handsome, with red bar stools, brown leather banquettes, a low ceiling, white walls, and tables set with white cloths, candles and chic little wooden boxes containing red-tipped lacquered chopsticks.
The black menu, sealed with Velcro, bears the name Philippe in red letters. Most of the dishes on it are the same as those at Mr. Chow, where the chef worked for 25 years. There’s also a noodle chef from Hong Kong, Wai Ming Cheng, who does nightly demonstrations in the dining room. The wine list of 120 bottles isn’t particularly imaginative, but it has a decent selection of fruitier whites that go well with Chinese food.
Philippe serves the best Peking duck I’ve ever tasted. The whole lacquered bird is carved tableside by a Chinese chef armed with a cleaver; it’s not hacked into chunks, as they do in Chinatown—nor should it be, at $65 a bird. He cuts it into thin slices that are tender and greaseless, with a glazed, crackling skin like rice paper, accompanied by delicate, lightly browned pancakes. Also delicious is the squab, ground up in small pieces with vegetables, to be spooned into wraps of iceberg-lettuce leaves and sprinkled with plum sauce.
We ordered a beef satay and were delivered three kinds on sticks, all with the same peanut sauce, which was like canned gravy, but nice—a sort of old-fashioned 1950’s Campbell’s cream sauce. One of the satays seemed more like pork, and the third, an alarming vermilion-red, was chicken. The frizzled seaweed greens are deep-fried with a touch of sugar—and they’re terrific. “We used to called them the Jolly Green Giant’s pubic hairs,” commented a friend who’d been a habitué of Mr. Chow’s in the 80’s. They’re garnished with candied pecans and also come with the crispy fried lobster roll.
Halfway through dinner, we heard banging and crashing noises from the main dining room: the nightly noodle demonstration by Wai Ming Cheng. Mr. Cheng’s Singapore noodles, made with shrimp and pork in a sauce lightly flavored with curry, were not memorable, however. I did like the steamed crab dumplings, but I had my doubts about some weird little unidentifiable dumplings made with a sweet dough pastry. What were they? Did we order them?
Main courses are meant for two to three people to share, but you can get half orders of most of them. So on another night, a friend and I decided to try the green prawns and the crispy XO beef that had never made it to the table on my previous visit. Both were disappointing. The prawns were rather tough; they’re coated in a green sauce made with spinach juice and served with water chestnuts, carrots and straw mushrooms. The beef was cut in chunks in a rather salty XO sauce, which is made with dried seafood with chili and garlic. Both dishes came garnished with carrots with scalloped edges and were no better than average Chinese take-out. We were also rather stumped by the duck salad, a wedge of duck placed on top of an enormous, dull mix of raw red peppers, cabbage, cucumbers and other vegetables in a large bowl.
Desserts are peremptory and include a rather nice custard napoleon made with dry but pleasantly flaky pastry, and candied sesame-apple fritters. With the bill, which should be carefully perused, you are given wedges of oranges and sexually suggestive fortune cookies.
Outside the restaurant, one of the customers was smoking a cigarette and talking on his cell phone. “I went home with one of the hostesses two weeks ago,” he said. “When she saw me tonight, she said I’d be waiting a long time for my table.”