Anybody who watched Top Chef Masters Season 2 could not help but fall in love with Susur Lee's cooking. A seamless blend of traditional Asian flavors and flawless French techniques, Lee's food impressed the judges enough to get him to the finals. Needless to say, his was one of the first restaurants I targeted on my stay in Toronto.
My fiancee and I looked up his restaurant, Susur, online and found exactly what we were looking for. The menu was impressive, including a delicious-looking tasting menu that had us salivating on our keyboard. When we went to make the reservations, we were floored when we saw the ominous bold-italic Arial font inconspicuously hidden at the top of the website: Please note: this site is to available to explore the former Susur restaurant which closed on May 31st 2008.
As we searched around the site, we found that Lee had closed Susur and opened a new restaurant, the aptly-named LEE, down the street. We were excited, but as we perused the menu we saw that this was a much different restaurant. Instead of a fine-dining tasting menu, we were promised "a tapas style experience where guests are invited to share and sample a wide variety of smaller dishes." It took some of the wind out of our sails, but we were still excited to taste the food of the chef we had come to know and love.
We arrived early for a 6:30 pm reservation, and the staff was cordial and friendly. We were a bit put off because they sat us between two other tables when there were plenty of other tables available, but we figured they were expecting a busy night and that's the best we could get. Turns out those tables never filled up, but that was the least of our worries by the time we left (for all you non-English majors out there, that's called foreshadowing...).
Our waitress greeted us and was instantly annoying. I'm sure she meant well, but she was extremely young had one of those ditzy voices that just makes you want to break something. When I'm forking over 120 bucks for dinner, I don't want my waitress to sound like a character on Gossip Girl.
She "explained" the menu to us, which left us more confused than when we walked in. The restaurant is billed as "tapas-style". When I think tapas, I think about the two meals I've had at Jose Andres's The Bazaar in Los Angeles. There you are provided with a stunning array of moderately-priced one or two-bite dishes that leave you wanting more. But the dishes at LEE, as you can see for yourself, are not only as pricey as full entrees, but they are the size of them as well. This was our first indication that the restaurant had some identity issues.
After her introductory spiel, she told us that if we were new we might be interested in the tasting menu. Now we're talking! She explained:
At no extra charge, we pick out three or four of the best dishes on the menu and bring them out to you in no particular order. I mean, we've tasted all the dishes and know what's best, so we just bring it out to you. It's just a fun way to experience the menu!
So let me get this straight. You're just bringing out dishes that are already on the menu...at the same price...but instead of being allowed to pick our own dishes we are at the mercy of a 20-year-old who has never met us before? That doesn't sound like much fun to me.
The only thing that sounded somewhat appealing was the "surprise" element, but that was immediately shattered when the waitress went over the menu and said, "The Singapore Slaw is our signature dish. That'll definitely be on the tasting menu if you get it!" Needless to say, we decided to order our own dishes.
We started off with the supposedly famous Singapore-Style Slaw, which is a cascading mound of cabbage and other vegetables with salmon sashimi and about 15 other ingredients, which the server explained tableside. It would have been cool, but we had heard the song-and-dance twice already from the two tables we were sandwiched between. We even gave him the classic, "How many times do you say that a night? Can you say it backwards, hehe?" He didn't seem too amused. The server mixed it tableside but left quite a bit of dressing at the bottom of the bowl, so the dish was a bit anticlimactic. It's not that the food wasn't good, but the whole tableside thing and the "signature dish" just felt very P.F. Chang's to me.
After that we got the Szechwan Spicy Pork Ribs, which came with a sweet and sour orange sauce. They were difficult to eat and didn't taste much different than any sweet and sour dish you can get at a local Chinese take-out place.
We followed that with the Duck Confit Roll, which sounded great on the menu: spiced nuts, oven-dried pineapple, goat cheese & Canadian Ice wine syrup. This was by far the most disappointing dish of the night. The duck was extremely mushy and the roll wasn't crispy so there was no difference in texture. What really killed the dish, however, was the obscene amount of goat cheese involved. When I saw it on the menu, I was expecting a light drizzle or crumble of goat cheese, but this was a full-on bath. Goat cheese has such a strong flavor that it completely overwhelmed the dish and actually caused us to scrape most of it off just so we could get through it.
Next up was the Korean-style Skirt Steak, which I had noticed as soon as I picked up the menu. I was almost dissuaded when the waitress told us it was her favorite dish, but I decided to go with it anyway. I was glad I did, as it was probably the best dish of the night. The steak was extremely tender and the flavors (garlic mushroom and spicy ponzu) were good, but once again it was missing the wow-factor. If I get Asian food from Susur Lee's restaurant, I'm expecting more than just "good" food.
After a disappointing meal we debated whether or not we should get dessert, but eventually we decided that it might be a savior to an otherwise underwhelming experience. My fiancee ordered the Panna Cotta and I had the house dessert, a kind of Chinese dumpling filled with chocolate and peanut butter. The panna cotta came out and my fiancee (a trained pastry chef) could immediately tell that it was off. It is said that a good panna cotta should "jiggle like a woman's breast." Well this one was more like Pamela Anderson. The consistency was more like Jello than panna cotta, and the flavors weren't helping it out at all. We left about 3/4 of it on the plate.
My dessert was interesting at least and actually tasted pretty good. The only problem was, again, portion size. The dumplings came on Asian soup spoons, an interesting presentation that made the dish appealing, but the dumplings themselves were far too big. The server told us to eat them all in one bite, but when we did we found ourselves chewing and smacking for a good minute. When we finally finished, we looked down at the plate and realized there were three more gigantic dumplings. I actually liked the dish, but there needed to be fewer of them and they needed to be smaller.
Maybe we expected too much. We were so excited to taste the great Susur Lee's cooking that we may have over-hyped it a bit. Overall the food at LEE was good, but just not something worthy of a chef of that stature. We seriously have our doubts about how involved Lee is in the day-to-day operations of this Toronto restaurant, but Susur, if you are reading this, please check up on them as soon as possible!