Q&A with Susur Lee: the chef discusses Lee Lounge’s new dishes, lower prices and new flavours

Q&A with Susur Lee: the chef discusses Lee Lounge’s new dishes, lower prices and new flavours

Lee lounging before the opening of Lee Lounge (Image: Renée Suen)

On Monday night, we found ourselves at the highly anticipated Valentine’s Day opening of Lee Lounge, the new restaurant from Susur Lee. The room was buzzing, with all hands on deck working to the beat of the floor manager’s Iron Chef-like calls. A bartender was making frantic last-minute adjustments to one of the new cocktails, the very dirty ume plum martini. Amid this chaos, Susur Lee was the eye of the storm. He spoke with us at length, excusing himself with only thirty minutes to go before the service started. Our conversation, below

What exactly is Lee Lounge? Is it Susur Lee’s latest establishment or is it an extension of Lee?
Lee Lounge is considered a part of Lee—it’s just that Lee has a lounge now. People waiting for their table have a place to sit for a drink, have some small bites. It’s a bit more modern, a little more relaxed and with less feeling of commitment.

Was your decision to move toward a more casual feel influenced by dining trends or demands from a certain dining demographic?
No, it’s not because of a trend. I just feel that all my life I’ve been doing fine cuisine, and now I’m going with the times. It’s not about me—it’s about cooking for people. I don’t have a prejudice about the crowd I’m catering to. I’ve welcomed everyone who’s been a customer from Lotus to Susur to Madeline’s.

What about the price point?
Sometimes with restaurants you make so little money, it is all about the labour and love. And the prices we are charging are so inexpensive—$40-45 per person. Susur used to be $125. The idea was to make something modern with interesting food. Things don’t always have to have foie gras. Although I do have foie gras, I’m just not charging people $30 for it.

What are some of the new dishes at Lee Lounge that you’re particularly proud of?
I have the Peking duck roll, served with foie gras at $22. It’s a cross between char xiu duck and Peking duck. I took the skin off, then wrapped it in tofu skin to make it crispy. Another dish is the spicy Hunan chicken wings ($11); it’s my recipe using red fermented tofu and Hainanese chicken rice dip. I want to give people the chance to have some very nice flavours, not something boring.

Lee preps his team before opening service (Image: Renée Suen)

Are diners receptive to trying new flavours?
Oh yes. Being Asian, the restaurant has a wide variety of flavours and also the umami taste, which is important in my cooking. It’s based on really concrete things, not an “oh my God, I don’t understand” with bubbles, or those scientific cooking things which I never liked myself. My intention is to cook like a Chinese person living in North America, but combine it with something a little abstract.

What’s in store for customers coming here on your opening night?
The thing with opening tonight is that it’s Valentine’s, and with this restaurant opening, it’s double happiness. So I want people to enjoy tonight. I want to take care of people. Lots of love tonight.

Lee Lounge, 601 King St. W.,416-603-2205, susur.com.