July 20, 1981 | Vintage Insatiable
Shun Lee West Takes the Stage at Lincoln Center
Hear the bravos at Lincoln Center. Not tonight for Baryshnikov or Beethoven. No. Tonight we salute dim sum. The tangy nectar that is perfect hot-and-sour soup. Eggplant as voluptuous as an overripe peach. A serious great restaurant has finally come to the Upper West Side. The patriarchs of Shun Lee Dynasty, Shun Lee Palace, and Hunam have spawned Shun Lee West in the vast, graceless expanse that was, to a dreary end, Le Poulailler.
Imagine. A saucy parade of dim sum – the traditional Chinese dumpling lunch – from 10 p.m. on, an inspired after-theater supper delight. Fiery cold delicacies and entrées stir-fried with the sophisticated finesse Shun Lee Palace, across town, is celebrated for. Imagine lunch away from the midtown madding, with Shun Lee’s brilliant majordomo, Michael Tong, pulling the strings… the great Shun Lee-dynasty chef, T.T. Wang, at the number-one wok. Just launched, not yet quite discovered by the neighborhood when I visited. Shun Lee West, with its veteran team, is already fielding with real style and feeding with impressive flash.
A clever designer could find ways to cozy the clumsy space. Perhaps someday… For now, Shun Lee has simply settled into La Poulailler’s red leatherlike banquettes, hung some pleasant Chinese screens, started serving tea in demitasse, tropical drinks in fragile balloon goblets inherited with the lease. It’s pleasant enough, and the styleless elegance is already infinitely more appealing than your standard Chinese kitsch or borrowed bourgeoiserie. Michael Tong and his right-hand man, Ed Schoenfeld (“the only Caucasian maître d’ in New York’s Chinese restaurants,” he bills himself), are wooing the West Side gentry. Behind me at supper, after the curtain at Fifth of July, I hear Richard Thomas cry, “This food is a dream.”
It’s rash and truly unfair to rush judgment on a brand-new restaurant, but the first taste of its supernal hot-and-sour soup confirms Shun Lee West’s instant prodigy. This is everything hot-and-sour soup ought to be (and rarely is) – pepper-hot and vinegar-tart, with the eccentric perfume of coriander… a lusty gathering of black-mushroom slivers, pork, bean curd, pungent golden needles, tree ears. And there are other Shun Lee classics. Astonishing eggplant. Crisp dried shredded beef in a masterly rendition. Whole sea bass in a choppy ocean studded with Hunan’s obligatory ginger, chestnut, garlic, and pepper. Eloquently sauced, sea-flavored scallops with black-mushroom and asparagus cuts. Heavenly fish fillets in a delicate wine sauce with snow peas and the sweet snap of fresh water chestnut. And chicken Soong (too much, heaped into leaves of lettuce too small to roll), a confetti-dice of myriad crunchy things, spiced extra hot to please the fire-eaters at our table. If you want it that way too, you must ask.
Shun Lee camp followers will be delighted to find the house’s celebrated cold appetizers incendiary as always. Two neophytes in our group were convinced that gastrointestinal terrorists were trying to poison our table. But the rest of us, poking chopsticks into the Sichuan embers, were happy as firebugs… loving the peanutty pepper flame of hacked chicken, the peanut-studded minced bean curd with a delayed bang of heat, the tenderest kidneys landscaped with sprigs of coriander and peppercorns, the spicy Sichuan noodles tossed with a crunch of fresh bean sprouts in a sesame dress. Even intrinsically plastic king crab gains cachet woven with a Technicolor crackle of vegetable threads.
Eight of us arriving late for supper asked for a sampling of dim sum. First we got delicious triangles of fried bean curd stuffed with meat and chestnuts. And, then, small tin steamers arrived, filled with splendid little dumplings – shao mai and har gao – tasty shrimp balls more delicate than any ever tasted, zesty beef and pork in tender noodle wrap, and extraordinary Sichuan dumplings, moist and succulent, in a peppery puddle scented with sesame and coriander. Saucers and steamers came crowding in. Balloon crab claws. Bell-pepper squares mounded with tasty shrimp forcemeat. Chewy little riblets in a delicious honeyed glaze. A strange dry pastry filled with an exotic payload, its bottom tiled with black seeds (I seemed to be a minority admirer). The pace grew slightly maniacal. Our gourmand army seemed to be drinking dark-rum-and-O.J. at the same time exaggerated speed as the dim sum fusillade. Like spoiled rich kids at Christmas, we began tossing aside anything less than thrilling. Mundane beef on a skewer… a sticky rich dumpling (“This could have been invented by the Gang of Four,” observed Leslie Newman, a grand master of the wok herself”). I was perfectly happy with my five-spice fried chicken leg till David Newman quoted his son: “The trouble with chicken is, when you get past the outside stuff, it’s still chicken.” Dipping and dabbing the meeker viands in one or another of the four sauces worked do-it-yourself wonders. But the steamed ribs tasted pasty beyond rescue, and a ham-studded chicken ball was a strikeout. Attacked on all sides by steamers, crab claws, and flying dumplings, I begged for a slowdown.
“Chef Wang is on full speed,” Ed Schoenfeld observed proudly. “I’m not sure I can turn him off.” At that moment a barrage of seductive little har gao knocked us all to our knees. Somehow we recovered to taste splendid eggplant and garlicky lamb Hunan-style, with scallion and lurking shards of black Sichuan pepper. (“You should never look away from your plate while eating this dish,” Leslie Newman said. “I’ve just swallowed a pepper.”)
Mandarin cheesecake was a creative notion for dessert. Alas, fried bananas were greasy. And the handsome warm eight-treasure rice pudding was heavy at a moment when a tropical-fruit ice would have been the perfect coda. Quick to latch onto cultural crossover, Tong was pursuing sources for fruit sorbet when I left him.
Be warned: East Side prices have emigrated west too. Dinner entrées start at $8.25 (vegetable dishes are $6.50) and go up to $12.50. Dinner for a hungry two with a good French Gewürztraminer might run $70 with tip. Dim sum saucers ($2.50 each) add up quickly. Captains deftly spoon out portions unless you signal otherwise. If you want platters one or two at a time, left on the table to help yourself, say so.
Impossible now to predict what Shun Lee West will be like at full capacity… or in the pinch of the pre-theater demand. Even now the kitchen’s triumphs alternate with letdowns – the hacked chicken is slightly dry, the whole sea bass and “wonderful taste” scallops are overcooked. Lake Tung Ting shrimp are not as interesting as elsewhere. Dry sautéed string beans are soggy. Shun Lee Palace has always been a restaurant where friends and habitués are treated like royalty, while tourists and unknowns may complain of indifference or neglect. Will the tradition persist? I shudder to think what could happen at Shun Lee Palace with Tong and his first team gone west.
But ego and pride are powerful. We are speaking now of seasoned talents. Shun Lee wants only to be the best. Cynics that we are, New Yorkers feed on miracles.
43 West 65th Street, 212 595 8895
Stalking Cow’s Stomach, Five Ways
In love with offal. What an astonishing state of affairs. Growing up in Detroit in my Velveeta cocoon, I would have thought nothing less likely. Yet here I am, crisscrossing town, making wild detours in search of tripe and pigs’ feet… rhapsodizing over brains… demanding liver quiveringly rare. So when I hear that the Home Village Restaurant, in Chinatown, promises cow’s stomach five different ways, I alert my offal soul brother, the Incurable Neophiliac, and, with beer in a sack, off we go.
“Exotic Hakka dishes,” the menu says. The Hakka are the country folk of southern China. This is la cuisine bourgeoise of Canton. Biche-de-mer. That means sea cucumber, a.k.a. sea slugs. Marrow. Sautéed pig’s stomach. Boiled (thick) cow’s stomach. My neophiliac companion is beside himself. We want… everything. He summons a waiter to discourage us. I can be discouraged. But not my friend. He doesn’t need to love a new taste – a new fruit or a previously unheard of anatomical part. He just doesn’t want to miss anything.
There is a card with Chinese writing on the table. Aha. The secret specials of the day. “What does it say?” I prod our waiter. His answer is inscrutable. “Could you say that again?” He repeats. Still not understanding, I try again. “How is it done… with ginger, with black bean?” The waiter stares, repeating the indecipherable phrase. I strain for the cadence… brains, sweetbreads, fish maws…whatever. Ah, a sudden epiphany. What the card says is “Table Reserved.”
Cow’s stomach with preserved vegetables ($4.50). Tender, gelatinous flesh, something between a cèpe and a rubber band, with delicious ginger, bamboo, peppers, litchi nut, garlic… faintly sweet, slightly tart. I like it. But pig’s stomach ($4.95)… rubbery in its cornstarch-thickened sauce… no. The Neophiliac is philosophical. “It’s fun to go someplace and try food you don’t find anywhere else and know why you don’t find it anywhere else.” His response to sautéed ducks’ feet ($6.95), with fleshy, soft mushrooms and wilted lettuce: “I’m happy to have tasted ducks’ feet, but it’s not something I’m expecting to crave.” Hakka meatballs ($5.25) are bouncy, would be perfect for playing jacks if they weren’t carved into little flowers. But the salt-baked chicken (whole, $15), amazingly moist and pink at the bone, is a dish we will come back for again and again. The sauce seems to be chicken fat with a sprinkling of ground pepper. I think it’s growing on me.
Baked giblets ($4.25), mostly liver, with a few rubbery little gizzards, have a delicious flavor and would be celestial if they were less cooked. A dip of mustard helps. “How about stewed pork with taro?” I ask.
“Too fatty,” the waiter cautions. He grabs an ally again to deal with our exotic Hakka appetite. “You like this.” He points to No. 106 – $4.50. The name is written in Chinese. No English translation.
How thrilling. The untranslatable offal. The unmentionable dish. The Neophiliac fairly vibrates. “They don’t dare say what it is,” he speculates. “‘If we told you folks, you’d never believe it.’”
It arrives. Crispy red doodads with a sweet-and-sour dipping sauce. One taste… that taste… pig’s intestine, with the slight gaminess you find in farm-style andouillettes – France’s tripe sausages. My friend is ecstatic. Now the waiters are thrilled. They teach him to order it in Chinese. “Char tai cheong?” is how it sounds. Snapped out like a martial-arts challenge.
Home Village, with its bright lights and plastic drop cloths on each table, is full of Chinese families at all hours. We’ve been back (the Neophiliac has eaten more No. 106 than a Hakka peasant), and we have discovered the contradictions of the place. It is all things to all men. One evening we watched a quartet of Caucasian innocents order fried rice, sweet-and-pungent chicken, and Chinese fried pork. They could have been eating dinner in a Cleveland shopping mall. I’ve not yet made a serious dent in the menu’s 185 listings plus daily specials. But a pattern quickly emerges. The dazzle is random. Some offerings are positively plain. A few are astonishments. Roast duck ($8.50 the half) is a triumph of crisp, seasoned skin, juicy flesh, just a hint of fat, spectacular flavor. Crisp, dry bean-curd batter makes a noble egg roll ($2.40 for two). Chunks of lobster ($10 to $12 per lobster) are heady with cheese. The flavor evokes Sunshine Cheez-its. Spinach ($3.25) is deep green, braised in a melt of bean curd that adds richness more than flavor. The familiar sea creatures served in a crisp-fried taro nest ($7.95) include sticky blobs of sea cucumber, gentle, almost sweet in its barely existent flavor, a true texture food. The chef’s special steak ($12) is breaded, rare, wondrously tender, delicious with a dab of mustard – a dish for the egg foo young crowd and sophisticates too. Chinese-style pork chop ($4.75) is meaty and tender too, and almost cloyingly sweet, evocative of maple syrup. Large prawns ($7.50), stuffed with a sticky farce of garlic, ginger, black bean, and an unidentified mucilage, might be more pleasing if the prawns were younger. And abalone ($9.25), with sticky worms of marrow (I dare not ask what or whose), is a dish you need to taste only once, for science’s sake. The safest dessert is sliced oranges ($1.50). But David’s Cookies and Haagen Dazs are only a few yards up Mott Street. Chinatown is no longer a paradise manqué. I could move in tomorrow.
We’re acknowledged Hakka fans now. When we arrive, there are smiles. Peter Poon, a waiter who deserves Chinatown’s Legion d’honneur for diplomacy, won’t let our curiosity lead us astray. “You won’t like that,” he says of No. 128, pork chop with savory. “That’s French-style.” He sneers. Chicken a la king, No. 13: “Boring,” he warns. Five or six choices are vetoed with the warning “That’s just ketchup.” So when, in a gobbledygook of English and Chinese, the captain suggests black clams, we turn to Peter. He nods encouragement. Black clams turn out to be plump, delicate mussels in a hot broth with a tangle of onion, greens and coriander… the masterwork of the evening. The moral seems to be: Trust.
20 Mott Street, 212 964 0380.
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