I wanted to love Shang, I really did. Susur Lee is one of the most well-known Canadian chefs, and I’ve been following his career for a long time. When I lived in Toronto, I dreamed of going to his restaurant as I read his fascinating memoir/cookbook, Susur: A Culinary Life. Recently, millions of people were able to witness his incredible abilities in the kitchen on “Top Chef Masters” and the show boosted his popularity in America, something well deserved after a life dedicated to modernizing the classics of Chinese cuisine.
Our visit to New York City’s Shang was the meal I anticipated the most. I was so happy that Lee had had the chance to open his own place in the Big Apple and I couldn’t wait to finally taste his cuisine. I could just imagine him running around in his kitchen, and chopping faster that what most thought humanly possible.
We arrived at Lower East Side’s Thompson Les Hotel on a Thursday night, and it was empty. Thompson hotels are usually crowded both by residents and by people visiting the hotels’ cool bars and restaurants, so I was a bit surprised to find it so lacking in atmosphere. I thought: no matter, this just means that we’re going to have better service. Well, we didn’t.
Our dinner was a succession of awkward moments. We waited more than 10 minutes before anyone came to our table and when somebody did, that person didn’t even look at us, didn’t answer our “good evening”, filled our glasses of water and left. Turns out it wasn’t our server—our server came and dropped us menus, but no wine list. We waited for a while for the server to come back and when he did, I said that we were ready to order but didn’t have the wine list. He left without taking our order and more than 5 minutes later came back with the wine list and left again. We had to wait another 10 minutes before he came back to take our order—must I remind you that the restaurant was almost empty, save for a couple other tables?
Over 30 minutes after being seated, we were able to order our meal and drinks. After we did, service was pretty smooth, but cold and distracted. We tried to focus on the food: I ordered Lee’s famous 19-Ingredient Singapore Slaw to share, to be followed by a fish dish, while E chose duck. I was eager to see and taste the Slaw because this is one of his most famous dishes and he’s been serving it for years in his Toronto restaurants. The dish is a spectacular and colorful pièce montée, which is tossed by the server after it’s served at the table. Well, again, we were a bit disappointed—not by the slaw, which was every bit as beautiful and fantastic as I expected it to be—but by the server: he dropped the plate onto the table, gave us a half-second to admire it then destroyed the presentation, brusquely served us two portions then turned around and left, without saying a word or smiling.
To be honest, I don’t really remember the following dishes that much. Sure, they were good, but I think the restaurant’s lack of ambiance rubbed off on our moods. We ate quickly and left. We didn’t have an awful night, but I’d had such high expectations and I left feeling like I had been robbed of something.
When we had first arrived at the restaurant, the (smiling) hostess proudly told us that Susur would be at Shang the following week. Of course, I knew that a chef with restaurants in Singapore, Toronto and New York can’t always be in the kitchen, but Shang seemed to miss its leader and it felt like it hadn’t hit its stride, two years after opening. I’m absolutely convinced that a visit to Shang with Lee leading the kitchen crew would be a totally different story but, unfortunately, I can’t tell you this story as my visit was far from memorable. Because I’m such a fan of Susur Lee, I will give any of his other restaurants a chance, but I do hope that my experience isn’t the norm at Shang because, as the old saying says: you go to a restaurant for the food, you go back for the service.
Recipe: Susur Lee’s Singapore Slaw
The slaw is the one thing I remember fondly from my evening at Shang, and I came back determined to tackle this time-consuming but so rewarding salad. I had seen it featured in Lee’s book so I didn’t have any trouble figuring what the 19 ingredients were – in fact, I discovered that the recipe features a lot more ingredients than that, over 30! Needless to say, this is a special occasion slaw. It’s not complicated to make and as with many Asian dishes, mise en place is everything. The quantity of vegetables to julienne may seem daunting, but use a Japanese mandolin slicer and you’ll be done in no time. Have everything ready in advance and you’ll just need to assemble the dish at the last minute. If you want to impress, this is the appetizer you want to serve.
I’m giving you Lee’s recipe, but I wasn’t able to find everything so I will include my advice and substitutions. Use what you can find back home that resembles the most the original ingredient. My biggest problem is that I couldn’t find the salted apricot paste, and it’s a fairly important ingredient as the dressing contains a cup of it. I used umeboshi (salted plum) paste, but I drastically needed to reduce the quantity I added to the dressing as it is very salty. I suggest you blend the dressing’s 7 other ingredients then add umeboshi paste to taste.
Serves 4 to 6 impressed guests.
For the slaw
1 recipe Pickled Red Onion (recipe below)
1 recipe Salted Apricot Dressing (recipe below)
500 g taro root, julienned very thinly, rinsed and thoroughly dried (substitute: sweet potato or a white waxy potato)
2 ounces rice vermicelli, broken into 3 pieces
2 green onions, both white and green parts, cut into 2-inch lengths and thinly julienned
1 large English cucumber, thinly julienned
1 large carrot, peeled and thinly julienned
1 small jicama, peeled and thinly julienned (substitute: Asian pear)
2 large Roma tomatoes, seeded, and thinly sliced
4 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds
6 teaspoons crushed roasted peanuts
4 teaspoons edible flower petals (like viola or nasturtium)
4 teaspoons fennel seedlings (substitute: any other kind of seedlings)
4 teaspoons purple basil seedlings (substitute: purple basil or thai basil leaves, coarsely chopped)
4 teaspoons daikon sprouts (substitute: any other king of sprouts)
4 teaspoons fried shallots or red onions
Pickled Red Onion
1 red onion (about 250 g) finely sliced
1 cup rice wine vinegar
1 cup water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 bay leaf
1 sprig thyme
Salted Apricot Dressing
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
1 teaspoon mirin
1 teaspoon dashi granules
1 1/2 tablespoon onion oil (substitute: extra-virgin olive oil)
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup salted apricot paste (or umeboshi – salted plum – paste) *** Add with caution, a little at a time until you reach the taste you’re looking for ***
Make the Pickled Red Onion:
Put the sliced red onion in a medium bowl. In a small saucepan, bring rice vinegar and water to a boil. Season with salt, peppercorns, fennel seeds, bay leaf and thyme; continue boiling for another 5 minutes. Pour mixture over onion while hot and let sit for 1 hour. Drain the onions (keep the flavorful pickling vinegar to use in a salad dressing), remove the peppercorns, bay leaf and thyme and keep refrigerated.
Make the Salted Apricot Dressing:
In a screw-top jar, combine the rice vinegar, mirin, dashi granules, oil, sugar, ginger, and salt. Close the jar and shake well. Add salted apricot or plum paste a tablespoon at a time until you reach the taste you feel is right.
Prepare all the Singapore Slaw ingredients:
Heat a large pot of oil. When temperature reaches 400°F, deep fry taro root, one big handful at a time, for 2 minutes until crisp and light gold in color. With a slotted spoon, remove taro from oil, place on paper towel, and lightly salt. Repeat until all the taro is turned into delicate, thin and light chips. Keeping your oil at the same temperature, quickly deep fry the rice vermicelli, half at a time (separate the vermicelli strands well as you drop it in the oil), for 2 seconds, or until they puff and curl (it’s really quick!). Remove vermicelli from oil, place on paper towel, and lightly salt.
Frying the thin taro root juliennes:
Taro root juliennes and rice vermicelli, once fried and ready to serve:
Make sure all your vegetables are prepared and ready and wash the seedling and sprouts if needed.
The quintessential mise en place to make Susur Lee’s Singapore Slaw.
Assemble and serve:
Mix green onion, cucumber, carrot, jicama, tomatoes and pickled red onion in a large bowl. Dress with 3-4 tablespoons of dressing. Gather all your ingredients, and form an assembly line in front of your serving plates.
Divide puffed vermicelli equally between the plates and arrange a handful of the dressed vegetable mix around the noodles. Top with a high pile of fried taro root. Sprinkle toasted sesame seeds and crushed peanuts over each salad. In small bowl, combine edible seedlings, sprouts, and fried shallots. Sprinkle sprout-shallot mixture on salad. Sprinkle edible flowers around the salad, keeping whole flowers to top the taro pile. Serve with more Salted Apricot Dressing alongside.