Philippe by Phillippe Chow at the south end of Ocean Drive, reminds me of Lewis Carroll's Alice and Wonderland. There are white chairs with the funky, violin-like curves and elbow-patch like black padding, reminiscent of something the Mad Hatter would have happily rested his rump on. The bright reds and stark whites of the room make me feel like I'm part of a surreal living chess match. White orchids line the front window, and even the servers match the decor in their light-grabbing starched white jackets.
The restaurant's new location, which opened in December, offered me the chance to try their vegan options, and I was happy to oblige. Our server Josh started us out with a sampling of the restaurant's vegan appetizers.
We got a plate of the crispy seaweed ($9), which is essentially flash fried and tossed in a bit of sugar, and served over a handful of candied walnuts.
Since the seaweed is naturally salty, the taste is like fluffy Asian kettle corn. The wispy green shreds were soon littered all over the table cloth. Josh assured us that we weren't necessarily the messiest diners Chow's had ever seen; apparently the lightweight flakes often fly around the restaurant like tasty sea-green confetti.
Among the healthy vegetable sides we tried were the green beans ($9 for two people). They were cooked to tenderness and tossed in a red bean sauce. There's nothing complicated about the dish. It's simply high quality vegetables in a tasty brown sauce.
We also tried the bok choi and broccoli (each $9 for two people), both of which were cooked to tenderness, without draining the natural flavor of the greens. I love bok choi, so the fact that the sauce was pretty unremarkable did not faze me. The broccoli came coated in a subtle ginger glaze, making it my favorite vegetable of the night. But again, other than the fact that the produce itself was of superior quality, none of these sides was in any way surprising or outstanding.
The vegetable spring rolls ($9) were also relatively straightforward; cabbage and carrot rolled in crispy fried rice paper, and set atop more sweet seaweed confetti. They were crunchy and had a clean taste, without a lot of grease.
The steamed vegetable dumplings ($10) seemed to be stuffed with the same cabbage and carrot filling as the spring rolls. Again, they were cooked to a nice texture, this time steamed inside a bamboo basket, and were very tasty, but otherwise unremarkable. Just straight up, totally expected Chinese food, vegan style.
The main dish was a lot more colorful and much more stimulating to the palate; a tofu and mixed vegetable dish coated in a sweet red bean sauce ($38 for two people). This dish is not listed on the menu, but they offer it any time a patron announces that he or she is a vegetarian.
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The vegetables were plump and robust, with fat juicy squares of red pepper and water chestnut medallions nestled next to carrots cut into the shape of four-pointed stars. The shitaake mushrooms had a meaty, satisfying texture and were totally addictive. And the chunks of tofu gave me a bit of a surprise. I'm used to tough, fried, thick-skinned squares of extra firm tofu in my Chinese dishes. These cubes were silken, with only a very thin skin. As a consequence, their texture was delicate and not at all meat-like. For me it was a welcome change from the tough, chewy, heavy-handed chunks of bean curd found in most Chinese restaurants. We were served vegetable fried rice - with no egg - as well as plain brown rice to accompany this main dish.
Then it was time for dessert. To top off our vegan Chow-down, we finished the meal with two of the house-made sorbets ($6). The sour apple was the stand-out here. Each bite tasted like someone had taken a Granny Smith, dialed the flavor up six notches, and froze it while whipping it with a high powered whisk. In reality, the pastry chef uses vodka to enhance the apple aroma. No wonder my date, upon trying the dessert, declared that he could have eaten it by the gallon.
Should vegans bother going to Philippe Chow's? Sure, if they're looking for a typical Chinese food experience -- minus the meat -- in an elegant setting. They're not reinventing the wheel with many of their vegan options (although the sweet seaweed is pretty creative), but what they've got is great for scratching your Chinese food itch without chicken stock or eggs. Next time I'd opt to sit in the back dining room, under the open-air domed ceiling. (It closes in less than 30 seconds if it starts to rain!)