Sushi snobs have their Masa, rotund Italians have Mario and Mike White, and the Greenmarket aristocrats have Dan Barber, Thomas Keller, and the ubiquitous Tom Colicchio. So you can forgive certain members of the city’s long-suffering, increasingly cranky band of Chinese-food nuts for treating Susur Lee, who landed in our midst a couple of months ago from Canada by way of Hong Kong, as that most elusive and longed-for New York food demigod: the Chinese superstar chef. And Lee, who runs two successful restaurants in Toronto, has certainly embraced the role with gusto. He has chiseled, telegenic Bruce Lee features and a long warrior’s ponytail. He’s enlisted the services of an aggressive PR agent (“the Nobu of Toronto” is the phrase I heard), has at least one glossy cookbook to his credit, and has made numerous celebrity-chef TV appearances, including an epic encounter on Iron Chef America (the theme was pork), where he fought the mighty Bobby Flay to a draw.
Shang is the name of Lee’s new Manhattan restaurant, and by superstar-chef standards, it’s a relatively simple setup. The dining room is located on the second floor of the just-completed 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.
Since Shang is a Western hotel restaurant, there are approximations of Western hotel meals on the menu, and despite Lee’s diligent efforts, they’re generally bad. “When it comes to Kobe beef, no chef can resist the temptation to gild the lily,” declared the Steak Loon as he picked morosely at greasy bits of Wagyu mingled, unaccountably, with polenta and wrapped in kelp. The spiced beef cheeks I sampled were curiously flavorless, the Mongolian lamb chops were underdone, and the magret-duck breast tasted bland, despite the strange presence on the plate of burdock root. If you want poultry, try the smoked squab, which Lee inserts, like Peking duck, in diaphanous pancakes, or try his elevated version of crispy chicken, that Chinese classic, presented in a pool of sticky sweet-and-sour onion marmalade. For something more robust, the Steak Loon recommended the braised pork belly, which is garnished with puréed apples and lily bulbs and served, in the now sacred manner of David Chang, with a complement of steamed buns.
Is Shang a great restaurant? Not really. The setting is too prosaic, and the location too far off the beaten track. But in this cold, recessionary winter, when established dining empires are pulling in their horns and new ones are desperately turning out glorified cheeseburgers and bowls of noodle soup, it’s refreshing to see the arrival of an experienced and talented chef who’s not afraid to reach for the stars. Unfortunately, Lee’s talents don’t extend to the jumble of cloying Asian-fusion desserts. The banana-chocolate cake I tried was chalky, despite the presence of jackfruit, pineapples, and warm butterscotch sauce, and the coconut crème caramel did not meld either with the Chantilly cream on its top or the gummy layer of sticky black rice. For gumminess that’s at least authentic, try the glutinous rice balls called “tong yuan” that are filled with black sesame and crushed peanuts. Or do what experienced Chinese-food experts do whenever dessert time rolls around: Order a pot of tea and call for the check.