Entries in Susur Lee (3)


Deathwatch Deconstructed: Shang

Note: It took two years longer than anyone expected, but Shang finally bit the dust in October 2011.


This week, our friends at Eater.com put Shang on Deathwatch. It was the first Deathwatch announcement in many moons, as Eater had suspended the feature during the recession. No one is sure if the recession is still going, but Deathwatch is back in business.

I thought that the suspension was a mistake. Deathwatch does not celebrate failure; when correctly done, it merely proclaims the inevitable. There have been a few notable mistakes, most notably when the team DW’d Degustation, Jack’s Luxury Oyster Bar, and Jewel Bako on the same day, two years go. All three are still open.

But generally, Deathwatch has been an accurate harbinger of impending restaurant death.

From now on, with due apologies to Eater, we’ll diagnose each patient that checks into the hospice. First, Why Are They Here? Then, How Did It Happen? Lastly, Can It Be Saved? Our first case: Shang.

Why Are They Here?

Shang is a ghost town. Any night of the week, almost any time you want, there are reservations on OpenTable. On most nights, even a prime time table carries a 1,000-point bonus. That basically means they are paying you to eat there.

The restaurant is adding a sushi and dim sum menu. This is capitulation. Sushi has nothing to do with Susur Lee’s cuisine. It is just a gambit to put more bums in his restaurant’s empty seats.

How Did It Happen?

Susur Lee is Toronto’s most celebrated chef. But Shang was a dumbed-down à la carte version of Susur, his accaimed prix fixe restaurant that featured a reverse tasting menu. It was a major mistake to open in New York with anything less than his best.

The PR plan was flawed, as nobody was sure until the last minute whether Shang was supposed to be a transfer of Susur, or a brand new idea. The reverse tasting menu had made him an international star. When it finally became clear that it wouldn’t be offered in New York, Shang’s balloon lost its air quickly.

Success elsewhere is a notoriously poor predictor of success in New York. With the exception of Thomas Keller at Per Se, the chefs who’ve done it are those who move here for good. Lee was splitting his time between Toronto (where he still has a restaurant) and New York. If you want to make it here, you have to jump in with both feet.

We liked the cuisine at Shang, but it was nothing we would rush back for. Most of the big-name critics found it passé—a brand of Asian fusion that is no longer popular. One wag pointed out that when your best known dish is a salad (the “Singapore Slaw”), you’re probably in trouble.

It also didn’t help that Shang was in a hotel, and was therefore buffeted by all of the problems that often beset hotel restaurants (a circuitous entrance, poorly located restrooms, a bar under someone else’s control). The ill-judged décor was aimed more at hipsters with poor attention spans than serious diners.

We are always unsure whether reviews actually influence people, or if they just memorialize what the public had already decided for itself. But a paltry, unenthusiastic one-star review from Frank Bruni cannot have helped.

Can It Be Saved?

Probably not. The hipsters have long sinced moved on, and serious diners are still wondering why they weren’t offered the reverse tasting menu. We are not privy to any inside information, but we suspect that Lee is already back in Toronto, leaving the restaurant to run on auto-pilot and sell mediocre sushi.


The Payoff: Shang

We didn’t get a chance to post our BruniBet this week. The Eater odds weren’t yet announced when I left work, and when I got home Frank’s one-spot for Shang was already posted—much earlier in the evening than usual.

For what it’s worth, I had planned to make the same one-star bet that Eater did, not because I agree with it, but because it was the safest guess. Bruni is a follower, and when the critics before him weigh in with a collective “MEH,” he usually does too.

Indeed, for the first time I can remember, he came out and admitted that he read his fellow-critics’ reviews before writing his own:

The dining room is relatively understated, apart from a cluster of circular orange banquettes and a few peachish lighting fixtures so oddly shaped and unusually textured that my fellow critics have outdone themselves with metaphors, which I’d be a fool to try to improve upon. “Papier-mâché breasts” are what came to one reviewer’s mind. “Rumpled old stockings” popped into another’s. Split the difference and you’ve got the picture. [See photo above.]

We liked Shang a lot better than Frank did, but I certainly think it was churlish to blame the restaurant for a staircase and a bar that it does not control. Doesn’t Frank realize this is a hotel?



Note: Shang closed in October 2011. As of April 2012, the space is Blue Ribbon Sushi Izakaya.


New York is often unkind to imported chefs. New York’s Adam Platt, the city’s most clueless critic, once declared, “If I were them, and I had a successful restaurant elsewhere, I would not come.”

True enough, there have been some well publicized flops, especially where the itinerant chef is not in permanent residence: Lonesome Dove, anyone? Alain Ducasse has failed twice here, and at two current restaurants (Adour and Benoit) he has brought in new chefs after less than a year in business. Yet, had Thomas Keller and Joël Robuchon followed Platt’s advice, we would not have the exquisite Per Se or the sublime L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon.

Still, these are tough waters to navigate. So it took a dash of audacity for Susur Lee to close his internationally acclaimed Toronto restaurant, Susur, and open Shang on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Like those other chefs, Lee won’t be here full time (he still has another restaurant in Toronto), though he is a partner at Shang and presumably has a lot riding on its success.

In Toronto, Lee was best known for his “reverse degustation” tasting menu, which “began with robust, heavier dishes and grew progressively lighter as the evening went on.” At Shang, he wisely chooses not to demand that kind of commitment. He offers instead an à la carte menu of tasting plates, most of them (except the soups) suitable for sharing.

The menu has 35 items in various categories, priced $3–29, but most are from $13–20. The “small plates” format is notoriously prone to upselling and over-ordering, but the server’s recommendation of four to six dishes for two people was exactly right—we settled on five, plus a half-order of bread, for a total of $88.50, which is remarkable for food this good.

Shang avoids other pitfalls often encountered at this type of restaurant. Sometimes, plates advertised for sharing are actually difficult to share—e.g., three sliders for two people. Here, every dish was evenly divisible by two. (One eGullet poster, though, was annoyed when Shang served six lamb chops for a party of seven. A server ought to have noticed that.)

The other pitfall is timing. At some restaurants, the plates come out in crashing waves, drowning you in food you’re not yet ready to eat. You often wonder if the kitchen’s convenience has trumped the diner’s. Here too, the staff got it just right. We started with a salad—the immense Singapore Slaw ($16; right)—then two appetizers, and finally two main courses, all paced appropriately.

The service impressed us in other ways. Our first half-bottle of wine was slow to arrive. That shouldn’t happen, but the server handled it the right way: by telling the kitchen to slow down, so that we wouldn’t be drinking water with our appetizers.

We asked for an order of the Whole Wheat Manto Bread ($3; left). Without prompting, the server offered to cut it down to a half-order, as a full portion is more than two people would normally eat. We certainly had no way of knowing this, and many servers wouldn’t be alert enough (or honest enough) to point it out.

That Singapore Slaw comes in a volcano shape (there’s a photo on Gael Greene’s blog) before a server tosses its 19 ingredients tableside. I won’t try to describe the blizzard of flavors; you have to try it. The menu describes it as a portion for two, though four could easily share it.

The Mantou Bread is roasted to order, and the server warned it wouldn’t come out for about 20 minutes. It’s absolutely wonderful, but given that it’s only 37½ cents a slice, I wonder why the restaurant doesn’t just send out an order at the front end of every meal?

Chef Lee’s cuisine has been described as Chinese fusion. Everything we tasted was ablaze in flavor and impeccably prepared. Most of it you would find in no other restaurant.

Vegetable Potato Dumplings ($13; above left) wore a crusty cloak—yes, there are four individual dumplings on that plate. Lobster and Shrimp Croquettes ($18; above right) were in a delicate puffy jacket, each resting on a slow-cooked wedge of daikon.

Mongolian Lamb Chops ($20; above left) were as tender and flavorful as I’ve experienced in any restaurant lately, along with glazed bananas and a chili mint sauce. A cold carrot cardamom chutney would have been better omitted. A Young Garlic Chicken ($20; above right) yielded six pieces of plump meat, cooked perfectly.

I was pleased to see an ample selection of half-bottles of wine, an option far more restaurants should offer. It gave us the chance to sample two halves for a total of $41, less than we normally pay for a full bottle. (Now that I look back on it, I think they charged us less for the wine than the prices listed.)

Though Shang is a casual restaurant, the service team would be at home in a more formal setting. Fresh plates and silverware, and extra serving utensils, are provided for each course. Chopsticks are enamel, rather than the disposable wood most places use. Even the starched white napkins are delivered with a flourish.

Some glitches still need to be worked out. The large bar area was practically deserted. Yet, when I asked for a cocktail list, the inattentive and seemingly bored bartender gave me the bottle service list instead, which listed only two cocktails. Only when we got to the table did we realize the restaurant offers a dozen others. Our bar tab was not transferrable to the dining room.

The dining room itself was about 25 percent full when we arrived at 7:00 p.m. on a Friday evening, and about 75 percent full when we left. That’s probably not as good as they’d like, though not bad in a neighborhood that doesn’t come alive till late.

Shang is located in a luxury boutique hotel, the Thompson LES. The space is as gorgeous as it is comfortable. If you’ve been around a while, you have to pinch yourself before you believe you’re at the formerly desolate corner of Houston and Allen Streets. The restaurant’s advertised address—a separate entrance on Orchard Street—is not yet open. You get there via the hotel entrance on Allen Street.

No restaurant opening today can be assured of success, but if Chef Lee keeps his eye on the kitchen, Shang should do very well indeed.

Shang (187 Orchard Street between Houston & Stanton Streets, Lower East Side)

Food: **
Service: **
Ambiance: **
Overall: **