Susur Lee, Toronto's celebri-chef, is the king of multitasking. With restaurants in Toronto, New York, Washington and Singapore, and with plans to unpack yet another Toronto hangout in early fall, he's got as many plates spinning in the air as a Cirque de Soleil juggler.
And if it's Wednesday it must be Washington. Chef Lee and I are in Zentan, his atmospheric black-on-black restaurant, sitting side by side in front of a mountain of his visually striking Singapore Slaw with Salted Plum Dressing - 19 crisp, soft, sweet, delicate, salty, pickley, crunchy vegetables piled high (a favourite among Toronto regulars). Admiring the plating, the chef with the signature ponytail repeats the ingredients like a scientist reading from the periodic table: "carrots, jicama, nuts, taro root, edible flowers…."
"This is exactly the same," he says with great emphasis, "in Singapore, New York, Toronto, and here in D.C."
When he got the call to stand in for culinary whiz Todd English at a new Thompson hotel, Chef Lee had never been to Washington. But he says he took a look around the town, was impressed with local chefs Jean-Georges Vongerichten and José Andrés, and decided Washington was, in his words, "a very business-like city full of power lunches and power dinners." So for this business-of-government locale, the master chef opened a restaurant in Donovan House, the new ultra-chic Thomas Circle hotel named after master spy William Donovan. In keeping with the undercover theme, Susur Lee called his restaurant Zentan ("spy" in Mandarin).
Chef Lee is now standing over the salad and tossing pieces of jicama dangerously high. In Singapore, the slaw is a celebration dish for the New Year. "Tradition demands the dish be placed in the centre of the table and everyone present stand and toss the salad," he explains. This charming bit of theatre is usually performed in the restaurant by the house waiter. The charismatic chef leans into the dish and adds sotto voce, "Oh, the emotion of tossing at the New Year! Listen. You can hear the texture. You can hear shreddedness and freshness." I bend my ear to the plate, but I seem to lack the required culinary ear. The tossing, he explains, means that "all bad things will disappear and start upgrading."
Today Lee is in town to introduce some of his inspired and artistic cuisine to the buttoned-up Washington gang in buttoned-down collars. This afternoon (not long off his enormously popular appearances on Bravo's Top Chef Masters), he is turning out an asparagus salad. As it's the first asparagus season since Zentan opened, he deems this an auspicious moment to bring his recipe across the friendliest border in the world. "I do the same dish in Toronto. I use Dijon mustard, tarragon and celery. I want to make a very soft and smooth dish."
Are the D.C. foodies at Lee's sushi bar and lounge getting duplicates of the creations he concocts in Toronto in what he calls his laboratory? Well almost. He sighs. That border is friendly - unless you're a citrus-toting outlaw.
"Here, I cannot get calamansi juice, a southeast Asian lime. I cannot find it in America because of the law forbidding import of that citrus," he says. The calamansi, a special ingredient for fish dishes and citrus dressing, is de rigueur in Toronto. In the United States, yuzu takes its place. It's not the only recipe adjustment dictated by access to ingredients: In Singapore he can't get some of the vegetables he prefers; in North America he can't get the young ginger he uses in Singapore. Such is the plight of the peripatetic chef. This problem, he explains, challenges his philosophy of consistency. He gives me a "this is life in the comestibles world" shrug and bounces back all Susur Lee, the high-voltage Top Chef Masters contender whose fans still think his culinary pizzazz should have landed him the big prize.
As we await our next dish, Crispy Garlic Chicken, Lee jumps up and tells me I must see the entirety of this darkly chic and remarkable interior. He is radiant when talking about the dozens of tiny white candles, Chinese inspired wall hangings and curios, including a row of odd magnifying glasses and images of 1930s Shanghai cigarette girls. Credit goes to his wife, Brenda Bent, who designed the moody slick décor with retro Shanghai touches. And, indeed, the atmosphere is a hit with Washington's twentysomething workers who flock to the bar's cinq à sept after running the world's diplomatic meet-ups.
Back at our table, the star of the show, the Crispy Chicken, has appeared. This is Susur Lee's classic Cantonese dish: half a deboned chicken complemented with an aromatic, marmalade-like, dark and sweet onion jam, and plated with shrimp crackers. Invented in Toronto, this dish requires that the chicken be hung, dried and then braised like glazed duck. The item is wildly popular at Shang in New York and here at Zentan, but Lee promises an even more outstanding version will be on the menu in Lee Lounge, his new digs opening soon in Toronto.
Also planned for Lee Lounge's small-plates menu is the wild salmon dish that appears next. Served on a bed of fresh whipped potato accented with wasabi, the salmon is oven roasted with tarragon, laced with hollandaise, and accompanied by a velvety avocado salad with soy vinaigrette. I taste it. Just a little. I am transported to the heart of French Indochina, Saigon in the 1950s. I want to know more about the menu planned for Lee Lounge. But as long-time fans understand, Lee's mercurial and improvisational style of invention makes it hard to pin him down. He does say: "Think small, light and snacky."
He gives, as an example, our next dish: a fabulous and cooling raspberry sorbet flecked with chocolate crumble. With just a hint of Grand Marnier cream and a trace of hazelnut flavour, the sorbet is simple and light.
Of course, this sorbet and a watermelon salad with feta, jicama, black pepper and a soy vinaigrette are perfect for a Washington summer where the temperatures can approximate the surface of the sun. Lee is certain Capitol Hill staffers and policy wonks will love these dishes.
"Come on," I say. "Aren't Torontonians more experimental, more daring than Washingtonians?" He is loyal but reminds me, "Washington is like a Parliament city - all these international people come to work here." Even the ambassador from Singapore has been to the restaurant. Lee was delighted when she told him the Singapore Slaw was "even better than it is in Singapore itself!"
Zentan is sake heaven, but when I ask what spirits he will have at the Lee Lounge, he looks puzzled. "Don't know yet," he says with a big laugh. "It will just come to me!"
He does know he won't be following the latest tippler trend of vintage craft cocktails so popular at Washington haunts such as Passenger and The Gibson. No pre-Prohibition history lessons at Lee Lounge, he promises. "Making cocktails is like making a great dessert. I look for unique combinations; exotic fruits, interesting spirits, different kinds of whisky, cognac, or champagne." And, he adds, "I will be fully involved with designing the cocktail list."
It's time to go. His handlers summon him for TV and radio appearances, but he makes one last comment: "There is one BIG difference in Washington. And that's the security, not the food." Though celluloid celebrities have come to his eateries in Toronto, he says you don't see there, as you do here, men and women in dark suits and sunglasses talking into their sleeves as they stand guard over significant Washington A-listers. "Secret Service. That just doesn't happen in Toronto!"
Special to The Globe and Mail
IF YOU GO
Zentan is in Donovan House - a Thompson Hotel.
1155 14th St., N.W.; 202-379-4366; www.zentanrestaurant.com.