Plus a hot new Malaysian restau­rant on Oss­ing­ton

Midtown Post - - Contents - by Joanne Kates JOANNE KATES Joanne Kates trained at the Ecole Cor­don Bleu de Cui­sine in Paris. She has writ­ten ar­ti­cles for nu­mer­ous pub­li­ca­tions, in­clud­ing the New York Times, Ma­clean’s and Chate­laine.

Post City’s restau­rant critic Joanne Kates tack­les chef Susur Lee’s new

restau­rant, Luc­kee

LUC­KEE 328 Welling­ton St. W. $60 Din­ner for two

If you’re an opera singer, even if you’re one of the world’s greats, you have to show up and sing the aria or you don’t get paid. It’s pretty well the same for doc­tors and den­tists. The hy­gien­ist cleans my teeth, but if the per­son with the Dr. letters in front of her name doesn’t make an ap­pear­ance, the pa­tient isn’t usu­ally happy. So what’s the deal with chefs? How come they think it’s pos­si­ble to roll out what they do in far-flung lo­ca­tions? If I imag­ined for one minute that I could run four sum­mer camps and they’d all op­er­ate at my high stan­dards, I’d prob­a­bly do it. Who doesn’t like easy money? But I’m pretty sure the op­po­site is true, and that with­out my hand on the tiller (not the vir­tual tiller) things would not nec­es­sar­ily go as planned.

But many of our star chefs seem to be­lieve the op­po­site. Look at the re­cent ex­plo­sion of satel­lite restos: The County Gen­eral, Grand Elec­tric, Playa Ca­bana, The Drake, Farm­house, Ori­gin.

And now Susur Lee has done it again. He is ap­par­ently fix­ing to re­take the Big Ap­ple, he and his sons have Bent on Dun­das, and he has now opened Luc­kee, an up­scale Chi­nese restau­rant in the SoHo Met­ro­pol­i­tan Ho­tel where Senses didn’t make it.

The vey no­tion of Susur open­ing a Chi­nese restau­rant makes my mouth wa­ter. How could it be any­thing but fan­tas­tic when one of the best chefs in the world (yes!) does the cui­sine of his roots (he’s from Hong Kong)?

Un­for­tu­nately I know the an­swer to that ques­tion. If the boss isn’t there, then he’s not ac­tu­ally do­ing the cui­sine of his roots. Some­body else is. Of course chefs don’t usu­ally cook ev­ery­thing, but where the chef is present, they check ev­ery­thing to en­sure qual­ity. In­clud­ing the ser­vice. Susur is fa­mously a con­trol freak who re­quired the servers at Lee to mem­o­rize the 12+ in­gre­di­ents in Sin­ga­pore slaw and re­cite them flaw­lessly. Not so much at Luc­kee, where the ser­vice was splap­dash.

Same deal with the food. If Susur were there, I can’t imag­ine they’d send out pork meat balls (called lion head) with the tex­ture and taste of pablum. Or Luc­kee duck Pek­ing style, which is nei­ther crisp nor tasty, served with cold pan­cakes. Or Yun­nan fried gar­lic rice noo­dles with crab meat, which are good but un­ex­cit­ing and not crabby. Crispy house-made spinach tofu with shimeji mush­rooms is as yummy as it sounds, but the tofu is some­what dry.

We’ve found only two Susurqual­ity items: Hot and sour soup is su­perbly bal­anced broth with per­fectly cooked seafood and un­usu­ally thick cloud ears. Lob­ster is per­fectly (barely) cooked and its black bean sauce has been en­livened with or­ange. Szechuan kung pao shrimp are equally per­fect, their spicy sauce deep and rich.

Luc­kee’s do­ing all-day dim sum, de­liv­ered on carts on week­ends. This be­ing Susur, we ex­pected the earth to move. It stayed put. Har gow same old thing with gin­ger added. Siu mai not spe­cial. Lob­ster dumplings very good.

The room is a Chi­nese restau­rant with hip­ster taste — painted screens and red ac­cents, but cool. We counted 12 cooks in the gor­geous open kitchen. Go fig­ure.

SOOS 94 Oss­ing­ton Ave. $35 Din­ner for two

I eat around. Fa­mil­iar­ity with other parts of the world al­lows me to say with cer­ti­tude that in Toronto we have the most choices in Asian food of any city in the world. Okay, so the Thai food is bet­ter in Thai­land and the sushi is bet­ter in Ja­pan. But out­side of an Asian cui­sine’s home coun­try, we’re not to be out­done. You can see it in the food stores as well as the restaurants. Where else in the world do main­stream su­per­mar­kets sell le­mon­grass and tamarind and lime leaves?

But Malaysian cook­ing has been un­der-rep­re­sented. The Soo fam­ily had the es­timable MataHari on Bald­win Street for 13 years, but sold it. They’ve now re­opened on Oss­ing­ton at the epi­cen­tre of hip­ster­land, a sweet cosy boîte called Soos, with two rooms. The front room has one wall done in over­size black-and-white stripes with the word Soos in huge print, and the back room is cool in a whole other way: It’s a semi-pri­vate ta­ble for 12 (think party!) with red chairs and walls pa­pered in elab­o­rate retro print.

The food is from the Chi­ne­se­in­flu­enced part of Malaysia, the ten­den­cies gen­tly fu­sion, the prices easy on the wal­let. As in pulled chicken tacos in minia­ture soft flour tor­tillas, the meat scented with le­mon­grass. Their sa­tay is some of the yum­mi­est in town, su­per-ten­der chicken and beef served with chi­likissed peanut sauce.

More Thai feel­ing is the slaw made from green mango with sweet red pep­per, car­rot shreds, toasted peanuts and se­same seeds, with fried shal­lots on top and am­ple heat from chilies. All over Malaysia they serve laksa. It’s a soup/stew that re­calls the khao soi of north­ern Thai­land mi­nus the deep co­conut creami­ness of khao soi. Laksa is a curry with just a hint of co­conut, in this case with chicken, shrimp and tofu (all nicely cooked), both fat and thin rice noo­dles and the scent of galan­gal, turmeric and le­mon­grass. And some heat.

One doesn’t think of dessert as be­ing a strong suit of East­ern cuisines, but Soos does an as­ton­ish­ing Asian ver­sion of crème caramel: They flavour cream cheese with co­conut, sweeten with gula mekala (Malaysian for palm su­gar) and bake it in lit­tle ramekins for a re­sult at once creamy and loaded with flavour. This is not your deli cheese cake.

And Malaysian is not your eas­i­est Asian. The cui­sine lacks the sweet­ness of Chi­nese food, the thick co­conut creami­ness of Thai cur­ries, and the sexy raw fish mouth feel of Ja­panese. Which may partly ex­plain why Malaysian cook­ing has such scant trac­tion in Toronto. And why the other Oss­ing­ton bistros seem so much more busy than Soos. But I for one am a lit­tle tired of some of the more ob­vi­ous Asian cuisines as they’re in­ter­preted here, and am happy to be turned on to the sub­tle plea­sures of Soos.

Luc­kee’s mod­ern­ized Chi­nese room; all-day dim sum is served on carts come the weekend

Soos’s invit­ing in­te­rior; the chicken and beef sa­tay with chili-kissed peanut sauce

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