Susur Lee lite: the celebrity chef is back, but he didn’t bring his A game. Lee Lounge, his latest venture, falls flat
In the year following the announcement of Susur Lee’s new project in the storied room that once was Susur restaurant, it was tempting to believe that the chef was planning a triumphant return to Toronto. Speaking on his behalf, Brenda Bent, his wife and the designer of his Toronto restaurants, sounded keen to have her peripatetic husband back in the city more often. She even went so far as to enumerate the days Lee is contractually obliged to spend at his restaurants in New York, D.C. and Singapore (a total of 58 per year), adding that her husband wanted to “offer a more intense level of cooking” here at home.
This was great news for diners craving something more ambitious than Lee, the casual, cash-spinning and comparatively low-maintenance restaurant he has run, albeit often from a distance, since 2004, or Madeline’s, which stood for a couple years in the former Susur space but never came close to being as good as its predecessor.
Could diners dare to dream that the chef might give it his all in a Toronto kitchen again? When the new place, Lee Lounge, opened on Valentine’s Day, after eight months of delays, the first thing you saw inside the door was a black and white picture of Lee as a child with his family in Hong Kong, and the words “Re-Entry Permit” written above the photo on the wall. “Re-Entry Permit” was the theme of the Lee Lounge launch. What else were we supposed to think? Susur Lee was back.
Yet now that the room is open, all the hype feels cheap in retrospect, like an elaborately stage-managed bait and switch. Lee Lounge is not new, and it’s not a real restaurant, and it doesn’t particularly matter if he’s back or not—you hardly need a super-chef to run a place as ambitionless as this. The space, now connected to Lee next door, is more of a holding area for its bigger sibling than a restaurant in its own right. One half of the room has been made into the lounge, with low black lacquered tables and leather couches, plus a long bar (left over from Madeline’s) that’s fronted with pink vintage stools. The other half, closest to Lee, is restaurant overflow, set with full-size dining tables and chairs, so that if you’re hunching over one of the little tables in the lounge (which was deserted when I went), the overflow people (of whom there were many; Lee is always jammed) are sitting much higher than you.
It’s all quite pretty, of course: Bent has hung Mao-era propaganda prints of ruddy-cheeked peasants and marching children in the recessed light boxes along the back wall. The tables have paintings of peonies lacquered into their tops, and there’s an impressive taxidermic blowfish that turns, in full, glorious bloat, on a wire in a mirrored box; it shudders a little whenever one of the servers breezes by too fast. The lounge area’s short, pan-Asian, cocktail-friendly menu, with its Chinese doughnut fritters and whipped chickpea dip, is composed mostly of retreads from Lee’s other restaurants around the globe.
Susur Lee once helped to invent the field of cooking now known as modern Chinese. Little more than a decade ago, Food and Wine magazine named him one of its top 10 chefs of the millennium. At a time when much of Toronto, and the world, still thought of Chinese food as sweet-and-sour chicken balls and greasy chow mein, he was serving tuna with wasabi-parsnip mousse, cucumber jelly and crispy squid ink noodles. At the height of his legendary eight-year run at Susur, the room made Restaurant Magazine’s list of the world’s 50 best restaurants. Food writers, editors and high-end eaters from around the globe knew they’d not yet lived if they hadn’t had his lobster with black truffles, Qianpang Xie–style egg white and uni sauces and crispy dried scallops. When Susur Lee was a cook and an innovator instead of just another celebrity chef, the world used to troop to Toronto for a taste of his genius.
These days, you get cheeseburger spring rolls. The rolls come five to an order: ground beef and aged cheddar snugged into flour wrappers and deep-fried, served with chipotle mayo on the side. They were bland and underwhelming both times I had them: you get all the cheeseburger fat and guilt without the reward. Like much of the menu, they’re also cheap and easy, engineered for mass production far from the master’s reach—given one day’s training and an apron, almost anybody could make them. Although Lee doesn’t seem keen to acknowledge this, they’re not even original: his former chef de cuisine in New York, Doron Wong, developed them at another restaurant before he ever came to work for Lee.
Lee Lounge has better dishes. There’s salmon sashimi (the menu calls it “ceviche,” though it’s uncured) stuffed with fresh ginger and pickled daikon for puckery crunch, served over jalapeño-spiked ponzu. There are light, crunchy onion fritters with deep-fried coriander on top and a little bowl of minted mango yogurt dip on the side. He serves wicked Peking duck rolls stuffed with scallion, gently floral julienned persimmon, earthy, rich foie gras mousse, red chili slices and geysers of house-made hoisin (ask for extra napkins; it comes shooting out) that’s poised at the intersection of sweet, salty, sour and boldly aromatic without the bottled stuff’s usual glooping tar. His Hunan chicken wings are so tender you wonder if they were braised for hours instead of fried; they’re free of skin and fat, dressed with a light chili and plum paste glaze, and sided with a narcotizing pool of Hunan dipping sauce that tastes of sesame, black vinegar and chilis—it’s as sour-sweet as unrequited lust. But then the edamame, of all things, were mushy, overcooked and undersalted, and the $5 candied peanuts just stuck to my teeth.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised. While other culinary superstars, chefs like New York’s David Chang, for instance (who will eclipse Susur Lee, I suspect, when he opens two places in Toronto in 2012), surround themselves with kitchen staff at the top of their games, Lee doesn’t always do the same. His talent pool in Toronto is remarkably shallow: every last one of his Susur cooks—staff who could be called upon to produce the sort of ultra-precise masterworks the chef was once known for—has long since departed for another restaurant. It’s hard to attract and retain the best and the brightest when you’re running a casual dining place, spinning out composed salads and satays, and then aren’t around to inspire and train them. The chef is spread thin between his other restaurants, too. It probably made good business sense for him to do a lounge here instead of a more ambitious place.
It’s true that we take Lee’s every decision more personally than we do the decisions of any other chef. We exulted when Susur restaurant became successful, and we were jealous when he closed the place to concentrate on New York. He’s got bills to pay and a business to run in a crushingly difficult industry. He doesn’t owe us anything, and he never asked to be tethered as tightly as he is to Toronto’s fragile ego. I get all that.
But I keep struggling with how disappointed I felt after eating at Lee Lounge, twice. When I spoke to Lee on the phone late this winter, he explained, “Ultimately, I still want to cook my fine little things, but not crazy where I have to produce hundreds of plates.” And so rather than cooking for the masses, he does private dinners once or twice a month in the room at the back of the restaurant for corporate clients and some of the best patrons from the height of his career. “I have so many great wines from the Susur days,” he says. “I will call up people and say, ‘Listen, I would like to do a dinner with these wines. Would you be interested?’ It’s great, because I still love to cook.”
Which is encouraging, I guess. Maybe you still can have Susur Lee’s cooking, if he invites you, or you know him, or you want it badly enough and you’re willing to pay. It’s just too bad he’s barely trying for everybody else.
601 King St. W., 416-504-7867