Tony Chan's Water Club is no choose-one-from column A, choose-one-from-column-B Chinese restaurant. Nearly 200 dishes are offered in the restaurant's large, narrow room overlooking Biscayne Bay in the Grand Prix Hotel. But the ostentatiousness - and ultimately, the inefficiency - of the staff made our party of three want to flee, chop-chop, to the kitschiest Oriental hole-in-the-wall we could find.
In its gray-and-black sleekness, it looks more like an upscale Japanese dining establishment than a typical Chinese restaurant. The decor is chic, with matching, Oriental blue-on-white dinnerware and faux-ivory chopsticks resting in silver holders, an austere orderliness prevails.
Tony Chan's wine list features an impressive 80 bottles from France, Italy, Germany, Chile, Spain, Australia, and California, plus Asian wines, but my dining companion and I ordered Tsing-Tao beers and our guest sipped tea as we perused the list of appetizers. When my companion ordered the "crispy quail," a whole, sliced quail marinated in a soy pepper sauce and then fried ($7.95), our waiter hastily informed us that it "wasn't very good," and suggested instead the yu pan quail ($12.50). Described as Ching dynasty emperor Chien-Long's favorite dish, the yu pan features quail tossed with bamboo shoots and mushrooms, served on lettuce leaves. Why not, my dining companion said. From a list of daily specials, I chose a steamed dumpling stuffed with chicken, black mushrooms, and bamboo shoots.
Both appetizers, which arrived promptly, were lovely to behold and delicious to eat. Four large lettuce leaves enveloped a large dollop of coarsely ground, assertively seasoned quail-and-mushroom mixture. The waiter helpfully instructed us to "roll up the quail in the leaves and eat it like a taco." Consumed this way, the dish is a symphony of textures and tastes, and we didn't even miss the dipping sauces that were supposed to have been served alongside. Less spicy than the quail, the dumpling was a delectable treat of velvety dark mushrooms and chicken breast morsels interspersed with crunchy bamboo shoots, encased in a thin, delicate pastry.
As at most Chinese restaurants, entre es are divided into categories. Along with the standard seafood, chicken, duck, pork, and beef headings, there's some exotica here as well, such as shark's fin and bird's nest extravaganzas, specialties grouped under abalone, sea cucumber, and scallop dishes, and the usual vegetable-and-tofu and rice-and-noodle dishes. As you'd imagine, prices of the shark's fin and bird's nest delicacies tip the high end of the scale - a vegetable and shark's fin bisque costs $30, for example, but most vegetable-and-tofu and several rice-and-noodle dishes go for less than $10. As at most restaurants - Oriental or not - lobster and crab dishes are priced seasonally, and fresh fish, abalone, and shrimp dishes are generally priced in the double digits.
My dining companions expressed some minor misgivings about their choices, spicy whole sea bass ($18.50), and clams in a black bean sauce ($12.95), but both adored my shredded pork cooked in garlic sauce ($7.75).
Expertly filleted tableside by our waiter, the bass looked as if it must have weighed at least two pounds, and was embellished with a peony fashioned from a root vegetable. Though it was perfectly cooked - steaming, moist, and flaky at the touch of a fork - and spectacularly presented, my friend complained that, despite the spicy billing, this bass gained precious little zip from its dousing of bean sauce, diced pork, and ginger. When she pointed this out to the waiter, he responded that she should have requested extra-spicy. "Americans don't like the spicy like us Chinese," he announced. My friend countered that she normally expects a dish that's called spicy to be spicy, and that the menu does not instruct the diner to notify the waiter of the desired degree of heat. At this the waiter brought a small dish of an exceedingly hot, horseradish-based condiment to the table.
My dining companion's clams, which were small in size but vast in number, were also served in a bean sauce that, he felt, lacked sufficient spice. But the bivalves were seasoned expertly enough that this flaw didn't detract from his enjoyment. Unfortunately for me, the pork dish I ordered was served on a plate about the size of a salad dish. The thin spirals of lean meat were served in a bronze sauce with halved water chestnuts, and rapidly disappeared as my two dining companions filched from my plate. It was magnificent, with its precise balance between the pork and the garlic. Each of the entrees benefitted from an abundance of fresh, whole cilantro leaves, and each was accompanied by a small bowl of unremarkable rice.
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By the time we finished, our waiter was AWOL, and no desserts were offered. A different waiter brought us a list of after-dinner drinks, including some libations - such as grappa - that seemed out of place in a Chinese restaurant. After this same waiter poured more tea and presented us with a dish of orange wedges and three small rice fritters, each wrapped around a water chestnut, we began our campaign to get the check.
But our main waiter was nowhere to be found. Finally, after 45 minutes of repeated, futile attempts to pay the bill, including protestations to everyone from bus boys to a bartender at the restaurant's entrance, the waiter emerged from an adjacent room where a private party was being held. He was full of apologies, but offered no explanation as to where he had been, or how he he had managed to elude the many minions we had dispatched to retrieve him.
It wasn't the food that left a bad taste in our mouths. Water Club? It may be a while before we go once more into the drink.
TONY CHAN'S WATER CLUB
1717 N. Bayshore Dr; 374-8888. Open Sunday through Thursday from noon to 3:00 p.m. and from 5:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m., Friday - Saturday from noon to 3:00 p.m. and from 5:00 p.m. to midnight.