The Sam Wo Restaurant in San Francisco's Chinatown used to be known mainly for a rude head waiter named Edsel Ford Fong. Mr. Fong, a hefty, intimidating man, would lead patrons to their table, tell them to "sit down and shut up," and then sarcastically berate them ("fatso," "dummy," and "retard" were among his favorite taunts). Fong acted genuinely, unapologetically nasty.
Waiters at Mr. Chow in SoBe's W Hotel employ a different gimmick to demean diners. It's called the prix-fixe menu. This is how it works: We, the guests, enter the restaurant expecting a classy, high-end Chinese dinner. Mr. Chow, after all, has been known for providing just that, first in London (1968), then Beverly Hills, New York, and Vegas. The room is elegant enough, the floor padded in thick, royal blue carpeting, and the soaring ceiling studded with lights beaming through Swarovski crystals. Other private dining areas link off to the side and outdoors like charms on a bracelet. We are handed menus, a one-page laminated listing that is anything but elegant. A couple of boxed-in prix-fixe specials are included, one for $54 per person, the other for $58 (the latter brings choice of lobster, crab, or whole fish). Our waiter strongly recommends these deals, informing us that they encompass two appetizers, two main courses, and two sides that "the chef can help select to ensure harmonious tastes, textures, and so forth." When we place our order for á la carte items, he seems taken aback.
"Are your sure?" he asks incredulously. He then repeats the specifics of the prix-fixe offer, letting us know that we would, in no uncertain terms, save money by ordering this way (three dollars, according to our calculations, but that would mean having to get two starters; we just wanted one). We don't budge, so like a car salesman pulling out a desperation deal-sweetener, our waiter adds that the prix-fixe portions are larger — and that, in fact, "á la carte portions are really small."
"Thanks, but we're going to stick with our order," I say as politely as possible, not wanting to rile the clearly annoyed fellow any further.
"Hey look, I'm only trying to help you out here," he continues, "but it's your call..." Something in his trailing-off tone of voice ominously suggests he is washing his hands of responsibility for the meal. The most astonishing part of this exchange is that it was not a matter of one obnoxious waiter. Other servers around the room made the same persistent pitch, and we were subjected to a rerun on a return visit. This is what the staff is trained to do.
There is so much wrong with this approach, it's hard to know where to begin. First, to give a hard sell in a high-end dining establishment is unseemly. It's one thing for a matronly coffee shop waitress to lend caution, but this ain't no coffee shop. And regardless of the setting, to make diners feel foolish because of their choice is outrageous. Then to force them to feel apprehensive over the punishing prospect of a skimpy meal — at top dollar — is mind-boggling. And why on Earth would a pricier á la carte item be more parsimoniously portioned than its prix-fixe equivalent? Who devised this menu — Howie Mandel?
The first course arrived about 60 seconds after our waiter skulked off with our order (McDonald's ought to study the systems here so it can get burgers out faster). Just as well, as there is no bread basket, no amuse-bouche, no little bowl of fried noodles. If nothing else, this starter of "Mr. Chow noodles" substantiated those claims of skimpiness issued by our waiter. The small oval plate came piled with thick, unremarkable hand-pulled rice noodles beneath a chopped meat sauce that was the most Bolognese-like dish you'll see in an Asian eatery. Though the slippery noodles proved difficult to divvy up, the server placed the plate down and bolted. A few minutes later, probably upon seeing us struggle, he returned with a spoon that eased the problem.
A different waiter likewise exited too rapidly after delivering a platter upon the table next to ours, leaving a perplexed couple to ponder what it was that was placed down. "Looks like it has walnuts," one of them remarked, and both tried to recall, to no avail, which dish they had ordered with that ingredient (it was easy to gauge our neighboring diners' experiences, as tables are clustered claustrophobically close).
Other starters include a scallion pancake, which is really a fried scallion doughnut served with soy, and six little, delicate steamed soup dumplings filled with minced pork (beware: these are difficult to eat without burning your mouth).
A main course of crispy beef brought crunchy squiggles of fried, battered meat glazed in a gloppy sweet/sour sauce. The meat got chewier, the sauce gooier, with each passing moment. Two squares of slow-braised pork belly were much better, and probably the only recommendable dish we encountered.
Green shrimp, a house specialty, apparently gets its color and flavor from green food dye; the jade-hued crustaceans offered virtually no discernible taste in tandem with equally flavorless water chestnuts. A single pea was found in the mix, which my guest quickly swiped.
Side dishes are priced at $6 each. Per person. With a two-person minimum. Yes, that's right, you arithmetic whiz-kids, this means sides are actually $12 apiece. Why not just come out and say so? Maybe because the owners are embarrassed to write that double digit number next to "bowl of white rice." Actually, I'm exaggerating; the rice was indeed white, but it was called "vegetable fried rice" and encompassed scallions and slices of asparagus stalk — and a single pea, which this time I nabbed (different visit, slower guest). The most intriguing side seemed to be lily bulb with mountain potato, which unfortunately was translated into a dish of sugar snap peas, carrots, and onions.
American-style desserts — cheesecake, chocolate cake, pear tart, and so forth — are displayed on a trolley that is rolled around the room to some, but not all, tables. We were among those who weren't granted the show, and we didn't get much help verbally, either. Upon inquiring what "almond alfresco" was, we were told it's "like an almond lemon tart." Rather than ask how that might differ from the menu's "almond lemon tart," we ordered the latter, a thin layer of lemon-fresh custard in flaky crust, with powdered sugar/almond crumb topping. A check was promptly brought to the table as soon as we finished — even though we hadn't requested it.
Everything about Mr. Chow is awful. Music was Abba, Van Halen, and other golden oldies rock dreck. Restrooms are located in the W hotel lobby, far enough away from the back seats that they ought to consider installing a shuttle service. The timing of the food was too fast on the first visit, and too slow on the return; service was at worst amateurish, at best mediocre. Portions are too small. Have I mentioned that most entrées go for $28 to $35? Considering the dining experience, this is more obscene than any insult ever hurled by Mr. Fong.