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Shang is the name of Toronto Chef Susur Lee’s first Manhattan restaurant, and by superstar-chef standards, it’s a relatively simple setup. The dining room is located on the second floor of the Thompson hotel, a looming, vaguely brutalist structure that has sprung up among the scruffy bars and bodegas on the block between Orchard and Allen Streets on the Lower East Side. To enter, you ascend a drafty set of stairs from Orchard Street or shuffle through the hotel’s second-floor lobby bar, which is decorated all in black like the tunnel entrance to an old disco. The room is low-slung and haphazardly lit, and as you sip your brightly colored fusion cocktail, generic club music plays endlessly on the stereo. The space is decorated with a few scraggly sprays of cherry blossoms and oversize lanterns made out of what look like rumpled old stockings, giving it a temporary, half-built feeling, like you’re dining in one of the hundreds of freshly minted boomtowns of coastal China.
Luckily, Lee’s aggressive Iron Chef style of cooking is more lively than these dreary surroundings. There’s an overworked, almost nostalgic Asian-fusion quality to the menu at Shang, which means that some dishes succeed and others do not, but also that dinner is rarely boring. In the space of about ten minutes, our little table was inundated with bowls of curried, lemongrass-scented lobster bisque (excellent), oxtail-dumpling soup sprinkled with tapioca (bland as dishwater), and crunchy little Cantonese-influenced taro puffs filled with curried beef (delicious). I dimly recall platters of fat fried oysters drizzled with bits of fresh mango and kung pao sauce after that, followed by a series of tall, intricately constructed salads (try the soy-miso-and-avocado-flavored Beijing cucumber salad, and the delicious Singapore slaw, made with nineteen ingredients), and a cool little terrine of foie gras and chicken-liver mousse designed to be spread, with a kind of teatime delicacy, on little crinkly scallion pancakes.
“Evolved fusion food with a Chinese heritage” is how my friend the China Expert describes this kind of cooking, and that’s about right. I tended to like the smaller, dim sum–size dishes better than the larger ones, and the closer Lee hews to classic Chinese ingredients and technique, the better the results. Among the small-plate items, everyone approved of the classic Cantonese turnip cake, which Lee dressed with an artful mixture of baby eggplant, preserved black beans, and shiitakes, as well as the soft “steamed and crusted soft potato dim sum,” which are basically dumplings drizzled with spicy Swatow chile sauce. The large, clunky garlic shrimps I sampled were overwhelmed by a combination of spicy Indian jam and XO sauce, but the chef serves his excellent diver scallops wrapped in bamboo leaves, with sticky “eight treasure” rice and little disks of chorizo, and his slow-cooked, faintly caramelized version of sablefish is a subtle updated take on that old Nobu favorite, black cod glazed with miso.Note
Boozehounds will enjoy drinks like the Black Sesame (chai-infused Captain Morgan) and the Asian-accented El Diablo, made with pomelo fruit and jalapeño-infused tequila.Recommended Dishes
Lobster bisque, Singapore slaw or Beijing cucumber salad, turnip cake with eggplant, crispy taro puffs, caramelized sablefish, crispy young garlic chicken or slow-cooked Berkshire pork belly, black sesame and peanut tong yuan.
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