Shang – Susur Lee Comes to NYC

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I first became aware of Susur Lee and his cooking earlier in this decade from an article in, I believe, Gourmet magazine. The article featured Lee and his then new restaurant in Toronto called, fittingly, "Susur." It described his background and his novel approach of reversing the usual progression of a meal. Typical meals start with lighter fare and progress to more substantial dishes. At Susur, the meal started with substantial plates and progressed towards lighter fare figuring that the more one ate, the more desirable lighter fare would be. It struck me that that was a restaurant and food that I wanted to try and in 2002 with my wife and eldest son, I did. The meal was a seminal experience for all of us, most especially our son, who was twelve years old at the time. The food was sensational, the progression worked and we got to meet and chat with Susur himself. Indeed, he took a particular interest in our son's experience, even pointing out how best to eat a particular dish. The experience convinced me that my son was ready for more adventurous dining. Later that year, I took him on a culinary tour of Sicily, an experience that further changed both of our lives. Since that visit to Susur, I had opportunity twice more to meet and spend some time with Chef Lee. Once was at the inaugural Starchefs International Chefs Congress and then again last year at Madrid Fusión. On both occasions I found him to be gracious and charming. His presentations were superb. So it was with great anticipation that I planned my visit to Shang.

Our entrance to the restaurant was via a long and somewhat steep flight of stairs off of Orchard St. When at the top of the stairs, we arrived at the reception podium just off the bar and were quickly brought to our table, situated in a circular booth facing out towards the entrance of the restaurant. The booth sat eight comfortably though given the size, the servers often had to reach across people to place or remove plates and utensils. The size of the main dining room was somewhat smaller than I imagined, though there is additional serving space in an outside terrace, which at the moment is closed.

Given the holiday weekend it should have come as no surprise that Susur Lee was not at the restaurant, but I was still disappointed  as I had looked forward to seeing him again. We settled ourselves into and around our booth and made ourselves comfortable despite the chef's absence. I was content knowing that Dominic Amaral, Susur's long-time sous chef who I met in Madrid was the chef in charge.

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While the menu is not overly extensive, it was full of unique, interesting looking dishes, so much so that it was difficult to choose. We didn't. Instead, we left it up to the kitchen to choose for us. With menu prices not exceeding $29 and most dishes considerably less, I wasn't too worried about the cost. Our server suggested that we do about 4 courses. I assumed that they would be four plates per person. Instead, what was ultimately brought to the table were four rounds of dishes to be served family style. This was both great in that we got to taste many more dishes than we would have and yet the source of my main criticisms. Some of the plates came with serving utensils and others did not, without apparent rhyme nor reason as to why. Additionally, I am always annoyed when dishes to be shared come out with a number of items mismatched to those dining at the table. This always makes for an awkward moment or two that should be easily avoided, but somehow only rarely seems to be.

Our table started with cocktails. I had Susur's version of a Pimm's Cup, refreshing and tasty, though not an improvement on the original. Other cocktails were enjoyed by their respective drinkers including some mocktails. Shortly after we received the first wave of food. We received a couple orders of Singapore Slaw with salted plum dressing, a complex, multi-ingredient salad packed with flavor and textural contrasts and a couple orders of Crispy Taro Puffs With Curry Beef. We were off to a great start as each of these were extremely flavorful along wonderful crispy and other textural elements. The slaw, difficult to portion out, at least came with serving utensils.

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The next "wave" included Thin Sliced Octopus with tomatillo, tomato salad and pennywort relish; Foie Gras And Chicken Liver Pate with green onion pancakes, wheat mantou crisps and black currant jam; and a salad of Artichoke Heart, Butter Lettuce, Blood Orange, Red Wine Figs with cider dressing. Each of these was delicious, though there were not nearly enough crisps for the pate and serving the salad evenly was difficult. This flight provided  good examples that Shang is not simply a fancy Chinese restaurant. Susur's food here uses Chinese traditions and culinary aesthetics as a basis for expansion with additional ingredients from other cultures such as tomatillos, blood oranges and red wine figs. The visual style of the octopus was for me Japanese, though it used ingredients primarily of the Americas. The salad had definite Mediterranean undercurrents, while the pate showed Asian influences on a more typically western dish.

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The next wave of dishes showed Susur's facility with other Asian cuisines in addition to Chinese. Chick Pea Sweet Onion Fritters with ginger and mango chutney, minted yogurt had a clearly visible Indian background and Homemade Steamed Tofu Custard with crab, shrimp, lobster, mussels and air dried scallop dessert (sic) moss, tanjin bouillon was reminiscent of Chawan Mushi but with some unusual Chinese ingredients like the "Desert Moss" a product from Beijing. Steamed And Crusted Dim Sum Vegetable Potato Dumplings swatow chili, soy juice and Smoked Squab Breast And Foie Gras in lotus crepes with savory bean djan were clear in their Chinese ancestry even if they incorporated additional elements foreign to that tradition. Once again everything was unique and delicious, though I did not fully comprehend the crisp roof covering the potato dumplings. The textural element provided in that dish did not seem entirely sufficient to overcome the difficulty in serving the individual dumplings. Perhaps with a greater understanding of the cultural context of that element, they would have been more favorably received at our table. The custard was particularly interesting to me, presenting as it did a combination of familiar and unusual flavors in a very soft textured background much prized in many Asian cuisines.

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By this point we were starting to get full and thinking that the meal was coming to a close, we made a point of finishing everything off. We were quickly disabused of that notion when we were each presented with an intermezzo, a delightful Granita Of Orange And Lemongrass lemon curd, passion fruit gelee with bitter orange sorbet, banana. This was truly a palate re-invigorator.

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In retrospect, I am surprised that we were never asked if we wanted wine with our meal despite the presence of a wine list. We were asked if we wanted additional cocktails, but wine was never mentioned. Perhaps it was because pairing a wine or wines with the given dining format would have been too difficult to do well and to do justice to either the food or the wine. If that was indeed the rationale, I applaud Shang for not trying to push a product simply to make a sale. If not, no matter, as that was my sentiment once I saw the direction the meal would take. Ordering individually, I think would make wine pairings more inviting.

Following the palate cleanser, our final savory flight was brought out, consisting of meatier elements. Each stood out on its own. The Mongolian Lamb Chops glazed bananas, chili mint, carrot cardamom chutney and peanut sauce were universally enjoyed though initially only six chops were brought out for seven participating diners. I had to ask for and received another. The chops were cooked perfectly and worked well with the complex set of ingredients on the plate. I was reminded conceptually of the lamb chops at Devi though clearly the preparations were different. Crispy Skinned Young Garlic Chicken with sweet and sour onion marmalade was succulent and extremely tender, albeit with a soft texture in the chicken not appreciated by everyone at the table. I loved the juxtaposition of the crispy skin and the juicy, plump meat. The garlic was not for the faint of heart, though it added deep flavor to the dish. Finally, the Spicy Slow Braised Veal Cheek with soft brown rice, sour cream and olive preserved vegetables was tasty, but by the time any of us really got around to eating it, we were too stuffed. 

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The progression of courses went from lighter to heavier, the antithesis of what Chef Lee did at Susur. It is not clear to me whether Chef Lee is specifically repudiating the approach he took at Susur or if he is simply taking a more traditional and conservative approach entering this big new market.I liked his approach at Susur and the fate of the veal cheeks illustrates the downside of this traditional approach.

Our last flight was a dessert flight with a number of desserts brought to the table. These included Almond Crusted Chocolate And Vanilla Custards huckleberry compote, lemon & apple cider sauce; Warm Black Sesame & Peanut Tong Yuan in watercress and osmanthi honey consomme (which I never actually got to taste); Banana Chocolate Cake with butterscotch and the truly fabulous Almond Panna Cotta with dried pineapple, strawberry raspberry ravioli and passionfruit coulis. While all the desserts were very good, the last one was clearly the biggest hit of the table enticing both habitual and rare dessert takers.

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Shang is a restaurant unique in my experience. The food, though based on traditional approaches, is clearly the product of Susur Lee. The experience most closely resembles that at Momofuko Ssam Bar in tha strong Asian influences of the food, the restrained pricing (the portions are bigger here and IMO a better value) and the propensity towards family style service. Also like MSB, there was a certain laxness in providing serving utensils. Perhaps being a physician, i and my family are more sensitive to that than many, though I do not consider myself particularly germ-phobic. I do, however, prefer to maintain a greater semblance of basic hygiene than this approach tends to afford. That being said, I am glad to have been able to try as many different dishes as we did, especially at what was a relatively reasonable final tally for such an extensive and varied meal.

The meal may not have lived up to the extraordinarily high bar set by my previous experience at Susur earlier this decade and there may have been a few flaws and imperfections, but overall my experience was quite positive. Given the economic climate, I believe that the restaurant is poised to make the best of it, offering creative, unique and delicious food at a very reasonable price point in a sophisticated setting with generally efficient and attentive service. Susur Lee has come to NYC and now it is time for NYC to come to Susur Lee.

For more photos please see the album.

Correction: Though I was under the impression at the time, Dominic Amaral is the Sous Chef at Madeline's, Susur Lee's newest restaurant in Toronto, and not Shang as I had thought. That distinction belongs to Doron Wong.

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