The original space was apparently “dim and dowdy.” It received a snazzy makeover in 1985, but Bryan Miller found the food inconsistent, demoting it to one star in 1987. For the record, Shun Lee’s sister restaurant, Shun Lee Palace, which has been around since 1971, and serves the same menu, still carries two stars, courtesy of Ruth Reichl in 1995.
Shortly after the 1985 makeover, the front dining room was converted into a separate Dim Sum-themed restaurant called Shun Lee Cafe. The main restaurant and the cafe are separately reservable on OpenTable, but they share the kitchen and restroom areas.
Shun Lee Cafe offers an abbreviated version of the full restaurant menu, but when we visited the other day, we had Dim Sum on our minds.
Dim Sum comes on a cart, which a server wheels around the restaurant. There are only a few items at a time on the cart. This keeps the food fresh, but you don’t really know what’s coming next. The server just tells you what she has; either you want some, or you wait until next time the cart comes around. After she serves you, she scribbles on the back of a card. The more scribbles at the end of the meal, the more you pay.
Most items come in pairs, making them well suited to sharing. We had eight servings for a total of $54, which averaged out to $6.75 each. With two cocktails ($10 ea.) and two desserts ($6 ea.), the total cost of the meal was $86 before tax and tip. You’d pay a bit less in Chinatown, but you wouldn’t have Lincoln Center across the street, and you wouldn’t have Shun Lee’s incredibly clever light fixtures staring down at you.
We started with dumplings: beef (above left) and shrimp (above right), both done to a high standard.
The cart’s next couple of visits featured items from the deep fryer. Our favorite was the Giant Crab Claw (lower left-hand side of the first photo), a large juicy hunk of crab. We loved it so much that we asked for another one.
Shrimp Cheese Puffs (right side of the second photo) came a close second. Shrimp and ricotta cheese made fine company. We also enjoyed the Shrimp Taro Pancakes (left side of the second photo).
The only real dud was the Chicken Sesame Pancake (upper left of the first photo), which had the consistency of shoe leather.
Service was efficient, as it must be at a pre-theater place, though there was some of the upselling, huckstering quality endemic to such restaurants. We asked for just one dessert to share, but the server, perhaps feigning hearing loss, brought two.
Like most long-term restaurants, Shun Lee has its crowd of devoted regulars. Much of the crowd was distinctly elderly. The restaurant has a long-standing relationship with the Jewish community. The owner, Michael Tong, estimates that his clientele is seventy percent Jewish. His busiest day of the year is Christmas, and he can even prepare a kosher banquet on request.
I haven’t been to the main restaurant in many years. Our visit here reminded me that it has been too many years. I’ll have to rectify that. In the meantime, if you’re looking for a more casual option in the area, Shun Lee Cafe is a respectable choice.
Shun Lee Cafe (43 W. 65th Street, east of Broadway, Upper West Side)