December 15, 2008 | BITE: My Journal
Susur Lee’s Magical Mystery Tour
Wrinkled parachutes cast a rosy glow on circle booths at Shang. Photo: Steven Richter
It says a lot about the souped-up speed of gentrification in New York and even more about Susur Lee that he was willing to close his rocking hit restaurant Susur in Toronto for Shang, a hotel dining room above Orchard Street. It must have seemed quite a lure at the moment of commitment: The Thompson LES hotel with a world class restaurant in Manhattan’s hottest new zip code. Now, with escalating financial wipeouts and even crazed nocturnal nomads pinching dollars, there’s more riding on Lee’s back than just his ponytail.
Every country has its own Chinese food flourish: Chef Lee honors that fusion. Photo: Steven Richter
Yes, he looks like a movie star and talks like a poet, flashing briefly through the dining room with its big round booths and giant crushed fabric parachutes casting a rosy glow. Lee clearly knows it’s his to lose. From the look of the Saturday night crush in the dining room – the preferred age group, vogueish but not slavishly so, masters-of-the-universe-in-waiting, still dancing on the edge – Lee’s already got an audience that could build a buzz. Two longtime veterans of hip, one from Nobu, one from Matsuri at the entrance obviously have the required Rolodex. Tonight’s early responders are not just peripatetic first-nighters but also Saturday daters and even locals, a good-looking stew skewing young that might build the vital word of mouth if they like the food as much as we do.
What is it like? "What are the Beatles like?" you might have asked before hearing the Liverpudlian four. Like no one, would have been the answer. Susur Lee’s magical tour has taken him from Hong Kong, to Toronto, to Singapore with its triangle of influences – Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia – back to Toronto and now he hopes to woo New York with these lyrical inventions. His food is unique, unlike anything I have tasted here, often thrilling, endlessly inventive, whimsical and traditional in the same dish, daring and delicious. His passion for design almost never overwhelms his mastery of texture and layered flavors. He counts on a trusted second from his days in Singapore as he drives the kitchen to his astonishing tune, is his own pastry chef (and also fields room service). Be warned. Come with friends you like. In this first ten days, the kitchen can be slow.
Caramelized wild sablefish with mustard green relish and salmon roe. Photo: Steven Richter
You don’t have to know that the chef wants to honor the Chinese Diaspora. “Wherever Chinese food goes, it changes with each country. I want to honor that tradition.” Call it fusion, I suppose, but look for more at Shang. From time to time, a notion seems totally Chinese. Crispy taro puffs – four of them lined up without embellishment on a plate – are a dim sum you might encounter in Chinatown, except for that velvety surprise of curried egg salad inside. (Taro is a special weakness of mine that not everyone shares.) A big tangle of chickpea sweet onion fritters on puddles of ginger-mango chutney and minted yogurt – orange on one side, green on the other – links to India and possibly Japanese tempura. Splendid lobster croquettes filled with salty duck egg, lemon balm, shallot and the tang of chili-lime juice is a generation removed from China, reminiscing.
Nineteen ingredients and toasted hazelnuts give Singapore slaw its crunch. Photo: Steven Richter
Lee’s signature Singapore slaw is the perfect opener (one order is more than enough for four, no matter what your
server says). Toasted hazelnuts and a puckery taste of sour plum dressing add to the crunch and flavor of 19 ingredients. Sashimi of madai with pickled daikon, celery sprouts and lemon purée, plus caramelized wild sablefish, then lobster-shrimp croquettes with Malay black pepper sauce have us raving on our first visit. Dishes arrive two or three at a time with a clean round of rectangular plates for tasting, white with a tiny red rabbit on the rim – the chef’s astrological sign. I’m a fool for turnip cake, including this one, rife with eggplant, Cantonese-preserved black bean and shiitakes. With so many exotic notions, it would be easy to overlook steamed potato dumplings. They sound so ordinary. Don’t be fooled. Carved away with a triangle of their almost-veil-thin crust attached, the dumpling is marvelous and full of surprises. Crisp-skinned young garlic chicken with sweet-and-sour onion marmalade is remarkably juicy.
|Celestial seafood tofu. Photo: Steve Richter
The young garlic chicken is crackly-skinned, moist within. Photo: Steven Richter
Less thrilling is the Beijing cucumber salad, a too thick-skinned oxtail soup dumpling in chicken-coriander broth, and coin-like slices of octopus with tomatillo and tomatoes. Cardamom-scented carrot and chili-mint chutneys plus glazed bananas can’t save bland Mongolian lamb chops. But the triumphs blur the flubs. And even though we’re all groaning from the excess, our host, a legendary gourmand, can’t stop ordering. I am still able to appreciate the saving grace of orange and lemongrass granité on lemon curd with passion fruit gelée and bitter orange sorbet. I didn’t really need the lemon tart with lemon parfait and raspberry coulis in tea sauce or the coconut crème caramel with Chantilly and black rice pudding at the bottom, but I tasted – loved them both – and survived.
The chef’s dessert range: granité, warm tong yuan, and lemon tart. Photo: Steven Richter
I can’t wait to share this revelation with Chinese friends and taste more dishes even though it costs $30 one way and takes forever to creep and lurch through traffic from the Upper West Side. It’s my second visit this week. We must repeat the slaw, the potato dumplings, the taro puffs and my favorite dish of all – steamed tofu custard with crab, shrimp, lobster, baby mussels and air-dried scallops in Tanjin bouillon, a superior stock of duck, pork and ham – sheer umami. The black hairy stuff is desert moss (not “dessert” as typoed), a green that grows outside Beijing. Thin slices of pork loin wrapped around green beans with mustard and almonds should provide safe haven for tofuphobes and finicky eaters but I won’t waste my calories again. I love squab and foie gras in wrappers imitating Peking duck but the lotus crepes are leathery by the time they reach our table. Spicy slow braised beef cheek, fatty and luscious, is perfect. Served with soft brown rice and olive preserved vegetables, one portion is enough for four to taste, especially, if like me, you’ll eat too much anyway. And with so many options $12 or less, and everything else (except Kobe beef) $25 or considerly cheaper, you can spend a little or a lot. Include a $3 order of mantou whole-wheat Chinese bread to sop up sauces, and you probably won’t want to stop for a burger on your way home.
187 Orchard Street. 212 260 7900. Closed Sunday. To avoid a steep flight of steps at the Orchard Street entrance, enter through Hotel Thompson LES at 190 Allen Street. Take the elevator to 2.
Steven Richter Photographs on Sale
Letters on Houston Street. Photo: Steven Richter