A couple of weeks ago, I had a pretty bad dinner at the Wolfgang Puck restaurant in Atlantic City. The food was heavy and predictable and the service condescending. In a place like Atlantic City, one expects to feel like a bit of a mark, but to pay a hundred bucks a head for a pathetically pedestrian dinner (overcooked fish and lamb, too much salt) is almost insulting. At one point in the meal I made a (clearly unfunny) joke to the waiter about how Wolfgang Puck must be sweating in the kitchen making my dinner.
Of course Wolfgang didn't cook my dinner, or supervise the cook who did. The Puck franchise has been so diluted that you never know what you're getting. A restaurant bearing the maestro's name could turn out to be an over-priced mass eatery catering to the lowest common denominator.
But what is a chef to do when he's at the top of his game? Take a guy like Susur Lee: Internationally renowned for his cooking. Tied with Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America in 2006. Celebrated at home and abroad. His flagship restaurant, Susur, appeared on "10 best" international lists that matter. Courted by big money to open restos around the world, he did. Susur closed the flagship in Toronto, opened the less formal Lee in its stead, and also opened restaurants in Singapore, Washington and New York.
And now there's Lee Lounge, a bar adjacent to Lee. By my count, that would be the fifth extension of the brand. How's that working? One night, I ask our server what's in the Peking duck roll. She says: "I don't know. It's my third day. I'll find out for you." Back in the day, servers couldn't set foot on the floor at Lee till they could recite all 28 ingredients in the Singapore slaw. Is the maestro relinquishing control?
Not judging by the taste of that Peking duck roll, whose knife-point harmony of sweet/hot and soft/crunch is superbly Susur. We can't taste the foie gras mousse, but the duck flesh-'n'-crackling and the persimmon-jam-'n'-green-onion dualities make great music together inside thin pancakes. Same deal with the salmon ceviche, one small spoonful of delight, raw salmon with the crunch and the sweetness of jicama for contrast and yuzu-kissed ponzu sauce for citric bite. Indeed a marriage made in heaven.
But (wo)man cannot live on duck rolls and salmon ceviche alone. The rest of the menu is littered with gastronomic misadventures that are far below Susur's standards. Glazed sweet-and-spicy peanuts that are both too sweet and gummy? Hummus that is little better than you find in any other bar? C'mon, Susur.
Deep-fried Hunan-style chicken wings are good, but indistinguishable from a dozen other wing renditions in the city - in fact, I had better at The Ballroom, the bowling alley/sports bar at Richmond and John streets. The wings, the hummus, the ceviche, the Peking duck rolls and cheeseburger spring rolls comprise "the pedestal," the Lounge's $29 loss leader. One pedestal is pretty much dinner for two people. Great buy, fun place, middling food.
The cheeseburger spring roll epitomizes the disappointment that is Lee Lounge food. All the ingredients are present. Angus beef perfectly seasoned and cooked rare. Good cheddar. But when you cram that good stuff inside a spring-roll wrapper and deep-fry it, steam happens. And steam is the enemy of a burger. You would never put a burger on a steam table - it would get mushy and soggy. Same deal here. Yuck. A burger needs the grill to sear and crisp its edges. Plain and simple.
Similarly afflicted with ordinariness are the Chinese doughnut fritters, a.k.a. dim-sum shrimp. Is this deep-fried bread wrapped around shrimp mush? The wrapper is doughy and greasy, the shrimp neither big chunks nor highly flavourful. It would be unimpressive in a Spadina dim-sum dive. As would be the edamame, touted on the menu in lotus leaf with mustard salt but tasting ordinary.
Onion bhaji, done right, are the fun food of India. How could a diner not love onions deep-fried in super-crisp batter, with pungent gingery mango jam and minted yogurt? But they're not rocket science. The closest Lee Lounge comes to that is the uber-crisp garlic-and-parsley-kissed fresh potato chips, and the Assam shrimp, which distinguish themselves with the sweet/spicy duality that goes so well with bite-size chunks of oven-dried pineapple.
But we expect Susur to knock the cover off the ball, not get a few things right. It's a fun bar with edgy music and some cool chinoiserie; we're grateful they chose to retain the ever-changing wash of coloured lights in the big wall niches. But Lee Lounge is hardly a foodie destination.
Far be it from me to tell a guy what he should do for a living. It is not my call whether Susur does haute gastronomy or bar food. But buddy, if you're gonna do bar food, do it at your standard. Don't join the crowd. You're too good for that.