Fine China: Susur Lee’s Luckee is a crowd-pleasing slam dunk
For his new dim sum hot spot, Luckee, Susur Lee scaled back his signature esoteric fusion in favour of good old-fashioned Chinese food
328 Wellington St. W., 416-935-0400
As weekend rituals go, the leisurely dim sum pig-out is hard to beat. I’ve chop-sticked my way through the encyclopedic menus of Markham strip mall banquet palaces, waited for a table with a lake view at Queen’s Quay Terminal’s Pearl, and arrived underdressed for the crystal chandelier and gold leaf Versailles that is Crown Princess on Bay. For years, I had a standing appointment with a group of old friends at Spadina’s suspiciously cheap Bright Pearl, before it closed in a cloud of steam carts and rumours of sanitation violations. Dim sum is the best cure I’ve found for a hangover—all those greasy dumplings and watery pots of steaming tea, and everyone too busy grazing to keep up a serious conversation. In general, I’m not too fussy about where I go—at reputable spots, one siu mai is as springy as the next. I mostly measure the quality of a dim sum place by how frequently the grannies (and they’re always grannies—it must be a law) circle your table with their trolleys.
My favourite dim sum destination of the moment is Luckee, Susur Lee’s new restaurant in the old Senses space at the Soho Metropolitan Hotel on Wellington. He serves dim sum all day, along with a menu of larger dishes designed for sharing. Luckee is a red-lacquered funhouse of dragon murals, double-happiness symbols in pulsing neon, Chinese apothecary cabinets and vases of blushing peonies. It’s arty and zany and oddly charming, a fever dream of Far Eastern clichés.
One Saturday morning, the room filled fast with couples in flip-flops toting kids; intergenerational Asian families, the grandfathers reading the morning paper between courses; a group of perky, ponytailed sorority sisters celebrating a birthday; and a couple of tables of guys pausing to carb up before the afternoon Jays game. (Unironic baseball caps in a Susur Lee restaurant were surely a first.)
Luckee’s servers wear polo shirts printed with the promise of “Great Chinese Food,” and they deliver. At lesser restaurants, hot and sour soup is usually a cornstarchy receptacle for offcuts. Susur Lee’s is thick with plump shrimp and scallops, heat-torpedoes of red chili, and croutons made from sesame oil–fried won ton. He stuffs dumplings with a subtly floral mince of asparagus and lobster, and fist-size, fluffy bao with a slow-braised, peppery beef. He deep-fries cubes of crab and tofu, and dresses them in a rich mushroom and hoisin sauce. Thick rings of squid come coated in “golden sand”—a Hong Kong–style seasoning that hits the ideal balance of salty and spicy. This is posh dim sum, served on pedestal plates, and prettified with rose and violet petals.
There are a few off-menu specialties, only delivered by carts on weekends, including chicken feet—a must for any self-respecting dim sum restaurant. When I ordered them, our server did a double-take, to check if I was kidding, then hovered near the table while I started working my way through the bowl. They were tender, braised in a gingery black bean sauce, and as full of cartilage and tiny bones as I remember from other dim sum outings—more effort than reward. When the waiter saw the bowl only half-empty, he gave an amused smirk and asked if we wanted a takeout container.
Until Luckee came along, the most luxurious downtown option for traditional pan-Chinese cuisine was Lai Wah Heen, in the Metropolitan Hotel on Chestnut Street. What you ordered was brought to the white linen–covered table by an elegantly formal waiter, not on a cart, and even the simplest dumpling was sculpted by the chefs into the shape of a bird or sea creature. But the place had grown tired—the room so hushed and placid, you could mistake it for a retirement home—and not many people noticed when the hotelier and venerable restaurateur Henry Wu sold the business last year to the Bayview Hospitality Group. Wu, who also owns the Soho Metropolitan, had been planning to collaborate with Lee on a restaurant for years. Lee in turn hired three of Wu’s most experienced cooks from Lai Wah Heen to work at Luckee.
Luckee will irritate Lee’s hard-core fans. They’ll say Toronto’s first (and so far, only) internationally famous chef has sold out with a mass-appeal restaurant. They believe he should wow us with fancy fusion, like he did 27 years ago at Lotus on Tecumseth and, more recently, at Susur on King West. That he should stick to signature dishes like his Singapore slaw, that stunning rainbow tower of shredded daikon, edible flowers, salted plum dressing and a dozen more esoteric ingredients. I used to be a hard-core fan too, and felt a certain pride taking out-of-town visitors for the tasting menu at Susur, where you’d be guaranteed to spot a celeb or two. But all that acclaim went to his head, and he began to make insufferable, koan-like pronouncements about how every chef should please visually, orally and aurally. He’s a master in the kitchen but imperfect in other realms: he couldn’t best Bobby Flay on Iron Chef and lost Top Chef Masters to Marcus Samuelsson (shows that are more about likability than talent), and his first cookbook was a pretentious status object (the kind with few practical recipes for home cooks). He attempted to conquer New York and D.C. with Shang and Zentan, then retreated to Toronto when those ventures encountered middling reviews and fizzled.
I much prefer the Lee of today, who seems happier now that he’s running a few scaled-back family businesses. His wife, Brenda Bent, designed Luckee (she does most of his restaurants), and two of his sons, Kai and Levi, help manage. The original Susur location, rebranded during the recession as a more casual restaurant named Lee, serves many of the chef’s classic dishes, like the Singapore slaw as well as my go-to, a luscious rack of lamb that you dunk into chutney, mint purée and lentil stew (they’re arranged in concentric Sol LeWitt circles). Each time I’ve eaten at Bent, Susur’s restaurant on Dundas West, I’ve spotted him darting in and out of the kitchen, checking plates before they go to tables, once reprimanding a bartender for an unbuttoned collar. Bent is where he experiments like he used to. The room is livelier, the crowd younger. One night, I had a lemon grass–infused vodka shooter crowned with a bite of caviar and lobster, which tasted heavenly but was surely a ticket straight to glutton’s hell. Then came duck confit–stuffed spring rolls with a tangy gerkin-apple slaw, a tender hunk of short rib and parsnip purée, and, the highlight, a trifle of sultry, sherry-zinged zabaglione surrounded by an intricate halo of berries.
The Luckee concept is more populist, but it’s still unmistakably Susur. Lee told me he’d long planned to open what he called a “Chinese-driven” place and that he’s determined to raise the standard of traditional Chinese cuisine in this city. The menu tours through Hong Kong, Taiwan and various Chinese provinces. He tested his dishes for months, perfecting the house-made tofu and putting an emphasis on premium ingredients, like the torchon of five spice–flavoured foie gras that accompanies the Peking-style “Luckee duck.”
I returned one evening with three friends. We split the duck, which achieved the elusive goal of crispy skin and succulent meat, and was so delectable it didn’t need the foie gras (though no one complained). Many of the dishes are quietly delicious, like a whole steamed branzino, the buttery fish delicately flavoured with leek and ginger. I’ve never been a big fan of tofu skin, which is usually more slime than substance, but it worked as a textural foil in a warm peanut- and sesame-dressed salad, adding a slightly sour tang to the earthy perfume of chrysanthemum leaves and steamed spinach.
The dessert options are well made if somewhat ordinary: chocolate sponge rolls in a hot chocolate sauce, fairy-sized lemon tarts that taste faintly of blood orange, and the predictable sesame-seed balls, their deep-fried rice gluten shells hiding a centre of warm egg custard. Better to skip dessert and go for an after-dinner cocktail, seated in one of the plush red velvet sofas of the adjoining bar, where there’s a tycoon’s selection of cognac and Scotch, and a house sake custom-made for the restaurant by Ontario Spring Water, a Distillery District brewer. Specialized Japanese booze isn’t the sort of thing usually sipped after dim sum. But this is Susur’s place, and he does what he wants.
Opens his first restaurant, Lotus, a shoebox on then-industrial Tecumseth Street, in 1987, to raves. Through the ’90s, he soars. Cooks at James Beard House in N.Y.C. Has an Absolut ad designed around him. Closes Lotus in ’97 and moves to Singapore to consult for the Tung Lok Group (17 restaurants).
Returns to Toronto in 2000; opens Susur on King West. Serves high-concept dishes like pig’s ear terrine with foie gras. Opens Lee, a casual à la carte version of Susur, next door.
Publishes Susur: A Culinary Life (2005), a two-volume opus with home cook–defying recipes (like his famous Singapore slaw). Says, “You don’t read an architecture book and then build a building.” Closes Susur and opens Zentan in D.C., Chinois in Singapore and Shang on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Frank Bruni in the New York Times: “The magic that Mr. Lee reputedly made in Toronto hasn’t followed him here.”
Closes Shang in 2011. Tells the Toronto Sun, “It’s a question of culture. On Asian cuisine [New Yorkers] are not that advanced.” Opens Lee Lounge as an annex to Lee. Critics greet his cheeseburger spring rolls with a “meh…”
Opens Bent in 2012, with sons Kai and Levi, for a trend-conscious 20-something crowd who groove on his sushi pizza. Announces plans with Tung Lok for a restaurant in One World Trade Center in Manhattan, set to open in 2015. Opens the crowd-pleasing Luckee.