SUSUR DOES DIM SUM
Plus a hot new Malaysian restaurant on Ossington
Post City’s restaurant critic Joanne Kates tackles chef Susur Lee’s new
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