We all know Susur's back. Lee Lounge is very much his stab at interpreting what the people want and serving it to them on $29 tiered platters. Given his recent return home, after those meanie New Yorkers failed to get his Shang restaurant (the recession probably didn't help much), it's understandable that the master chef is eager to try to please the masses this time out.
That's why at Lee Lounge, he's tapped triumphantly into tapas. Designed by Susur's wife Brenda Bent, like all Susur restau
rants, Lee Lounge, with its black lacquer decoupaged table tops, burnished gold walls and red velvet banquettes, is a nod to the kitschy Chinese restaurants of the '60s like stalwarts China House and House of Chan. As Bent says, upscale has become more casual and casual has become more upscale. And the prices at Lee Lounge reflect this - you certainly could never dine at Susur for $50 a head before taxes.
Few Canadian chefs have been featured on Food Network's Iron Chef to go head to head with the likes of Bobby Flay. And while he's still one of the most celebrated chefs in the country, we admire him for making his food more accessible in tough times, even if we must grieve the loss of his culinary theatrics like the exacto-knife unsealing of a tomato essence broth with the surgical precision of open-heart surgery. Instead we are left with what is, in essence, haute couture fast food.
And Lee took a while to open. The much anticipated reveal was first scheduled for last July, then pushed back to September, then word came that it would open in January. Finally, the doors opened for a Valentine's Day launch. And though there was some confusion about opening dates, confusion still persists with the room's layout. Meant to occupy the queue of people waiting to get into the neighbouring Lee for dinner, the new lounge space, with its own menu, is really part lounge and part extension of the next door Lee, also with its own menu. How are customers going to feel when they're told they can't order what abutting tables have ordered because they are sitting in the wrong part of the room. That's an awkward moment that most waiters would have difficulty rationalizing. Thankfully, our pleas to end this ridiculous idea fell on the very accommodating ears of a server who in the end allowed us to order off of both menus.
Servers, while attractive and friendly, are definitely trying to move the munchies and the martinis. No less than seven times are we asked if we'd like to order more food or cocktails. But how far have we fallen when we are brought moist towlettes to kickstart a Susur meal of upscale pub grub. A sharing platter of six items ($29) ranges from the merely brilliant to the astonishingly boring. Two crispy meaty Hunan chicken wings come with an addictive sticky, spicy red fermented tofu sauce that would not be out of place at a Schezwan Chalet. Tender strips of duck, pickled ginger, yuba, cucumber and hoisin, smeared with foie gras mousse and rolled up in rice paper just melt effortlessly away in your mouth, much like your disposable income here. On the other hand, edamame with mustard salt tastes no different from the boiled beans you get gratis at any Korean sushi restaurant in the city. And ok, the greaseless gossamer garlic potato chips served with it are maybe the best house made crisps ever, but, please, pair them with something more inventive than a tasteless, textureless, done-to-death hummus. As stupendous as the salmon ceviche spoons with pickled ginger, jicama, salmon roe and jalapeno are, and as tantalizing as the bite-size cheeseburger spring rolls are, this is Susur, dumbed down.
But Susur certainly knows how to elevate an onion bhaji into something befitting a Moghul emperor. Ditto with his crisp and greaseless, chickpea sweet onion fritters ($10) with roughly cut mango, ginger and minted yogurt. And little shrimp doughnuts ($11) are an innovative take on the popular dim sum, but a spicy shrimp with oven dried pineapple ($12), while plump and perfectly cooked, are begging to come up for air in a gloopy assam sauce that drowns in tamarind.
A quartet of sorbets and ice creams ($12), served with shaved chocolate and a honey tuille, despite exotic ingredients like jackfruit and meyer lemon, is like any other gelato found in Little Italy or your grocer's freezer. But nothing is quite like an absolutely divine sour cream chili lime sorbet that could easily get you to quit, cold turkey, Ben & Jerry's. Enjoy the tangy, creamy little snowball and the fiery burn that follows. And the tong yuen ($12), warm glutinous mochi rice envelopes stuffed with sultry chocolate ganache, hazelnuts, salty peanuts, shredded coconut and sesame proves that Susur still sets the bar when it comes to Asian fusion.
Is Susur just waiting out the economic maelstrom with Lee Lounge? Will he ever again embark on yet another one of his extravagant foodie follies? Either way, we're glad he's back. And if this is the Susur of the times, we'll take it.