If you found this blog by Googling my name or by following sundry noxious links (you know where), please note that all claims that I was fired from my job are 100% false, as are most of the other things written about me. I don't know the people who are libeling me, but it's clear they have some imaginary axe to grind and way too much time.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Chris@Shang

date
Thu, Apr 23, 2009 at 10:52 AM
subjectRe: I NEED AN EATING BUDDY - w4m - 22 (Midtown East)
mailed-by me.com

Hey Zoe,

I was wondering if we could change the venue to another restaurant? I am thinking something more low key, Susur is best left for a second or third outing. Some people love his food others just don't get it (even foodies).

Chris

This email raised a burning question in my mind - is there anything to "get" about food? I think not. At its craziest, maybe it's a little bit like modern art: every concept deserves a chance, deserves at least to be heard out, but people have every right to not like it without being condescended to. The fact that my dining companion only saw two options - loving it and not getting it - was a little ridiculous. A little annoyed, I wrote back to assure him that I could handle Shang, and he agreed to stick with the plan.

Shang was not a place I'd been dying to try on my own. The menu looked too expensive, too fusiony, too pan-Asian. But after emailing back and forth with Chris for two weeks, I had actually gotten pretty excited for it, because Chris, like Susur Lee, hails from Toronto. As I would learn over the course of the evening, Chris is a total Susur Lee fanboy and also happens to be a restaurant consultant. I thought it'd be interesting to get an insider's perspective on a controversial place.

Yet for all the gushing Chris did - "I've been following Susur's food for years." "The servers at his restaurants have to be so knowledgeable, otherwise they don't last long. I usually don't even order. I just tell them to feed me." "The kitchen's just not the same when he's not around." - he didn't do much emoting over the food. I can only talk about how I felt about the food because I have no idea whether it lived up to his expectations.

I think he might have been annoyed by the fact that Angela and I ordered from the menu rather leaving it up to our server to decide. Maybe he was also a teensy bit crushed that there was no Susur sighting: "I wonder where he is, you'll usually see him walking around six or seven times a night."

Anyways, I thought the food was pretty good.

Starters:


Curry beef and taro puffs with horseradish cream, octopus salad with tomatillo salsa and pennywort relish


The famous 18-ingredient Singapore Slaw


Singapore Slaw being slawed.

The puffs were a little heavy, the slaw good but for all the hype, still just a slaw (the secret ingredient out of 18 is raw Chinese cellophane noodles giving an unexpected crunch.) The octopus was the most intriguing dish to me - the slices seemed bonded together, but I couldn't figure out how, and the salsa and relish gave complementary spicy zings.

At this point, conversation naturally turned to "the industry," and while Chris was definitely knowledgeable, he also seemed jaded. Maybe it's the nature of his job, but he sounded passionless as he talked about the business, with emphasis on business.

"I think you'd have to be psychotic to open a restaurant in New York."

Gee, buddy, thanks for crapping on my dreams

So a couple of minutes later, when he asked me what type of restaurant I wanted to open, I hesitated, not wanting to seem psychotic nor just incredibly naive.

"A place that serves northern Chinese brunch."
"What's that?"

He was gracious in reserving judgment and polite in trying to understand just what I was talking about (I was pretty bad at explaining the concept), but I wondered how much he really knew about Chinese food.

"I think a lot of Chinese people have Susur's food because they expect it to be classical Chinese," he'd stated earlier. Angela and I had respectfully disagreed.
"Well, maybe that'd be true for our parents, but at our generation, we're pretty open-minded." This is not the first time we've seen fusion.

And it soon became apparent, as the entrees arrived, that this particular brand of fusion was not particularly hard to "get."


Caramelized sablefish, mustard green relish, miso mustard, salmon caviar



Mongolian lamb chops, glazed bananas, chili mint, carrot cardamom chutney


Szechuan half-duck, served with mantou bread, slivered beets, slivered scallions, and bean paste.

How far did it diverge from Chinese food and how well-conceived were the innovations?

Well, we'll skip the sablefish - I'd never had sablefish before and thus have no point of reference (Chinese cuisine also doesn't do this bullshit fish fillet thing). I will say that it had a very unique texture, each groove of muscle separating and feeling like an individual entity. Angela liked the texture, I'm meh.

The lamb chops were my favorite, even though I would've preferred a little more cooking time, but again, the reference here is not Chinese. "Chili mint" is a smoother version of the mint chutney Indian restaurants dole out in cupfuls. The other sauce was a carrot puree, and there were some slices of sweet plantain in the middle (huh?).

So that leaves the duck and mantou bread. The duck's trappings, except for the addition of slivered beets and swapping of mantou for flour pancakes, are exactly the trappings of classic Peking duck, arguably the Chinese national dish. I couldn't taste the beets and the mantou bread was too thick to be a good wrapper for the duck. I still have leftover pieces sitting in a takeout box. The duck itself was very bland, very fatty, and the skin was NOT CRISPY. Not saying that it should have been crispy, but if you're riffing on something that has been pretty much perfected, your alternative has to be all the more ingenious. I also don't see how these alterations make it Szechuan duck all of a sudden - not a hint of Szechuan spice in the dish.

The mantou bread straight-up pissed me off. Mantou in China is big, white, fluffy - the perfect sopper-upper of sauces and juices. Mantou is so beloved that when my grandmother came to visit, she smuggled two huge fresh mantou through customs for Dad. Shang's mantou was small, tough, pre-sliced, and made out of whole wheat.

Good God, even David Chang knows not to fuck (much) with mantou.

In any case, the food on its own would have been more than good enough to leave me satisfied, but with all of Chris's hype, I was underwhelmed. My suspicions about his (lack of) knowledge about Chinese food were confirmed when he revealed that he had never had Peking duck or knew what mantou was. You can't overly credit someone for changing the classics when you've never even had the classics. And you can't fault someone for not liking the innovations when they're just not as good as the classics.



I got this dessert because our waitress uttered the words "sparkling lemongrass, lychee..." and I stopped listening. Had to have it. (It also turns out to have mint and candied lemon.) I think it sums up Shang very well - great concepts executed in pretty, slick, and sometimes even solidly delicious ways, but ultimately not much depth and definitely not mind-blowing. All I tasted in this dish was lemon sorbet, although serving sorbet in a little puddle of fizzy liquid is a great party trick.

While we were eating, by the way, the restaurant had filled up, and at one point I realized I couldn't tell the hostesses from the female customers, as they were equally svelte and equally attired in itty bitty clubbing dresses. This place is far too trendy. I hate trendy.



Angela's dessert was more accomplished: an orange granite with fresh berries and lemon curd, capped with an adorable toasted-crepe cone. In the front is a slice of blood orange sorbet, with chocolate "seeds."

After three and a half loooong hours, we finally wrapped up the meal and took off. By this time I was antsy and could tell Angela was equally bored. It wasn't that the conversation ever stopped, the three of us just didn't...click. The conversation never moved past the stage of asking lots of questions about one another to develop a rhythm of its own. Unfortunately, when conversations can't sustain themselves, three and a half hours can seem really, really long, no matter how enjoyable the food.

One thing we all agreed on was that New York has too many great cheap restaurants for anyone to feel like they need to blow money to eat well. I'd venture to take that a step further and say one shouldn't feel compelled to drop a lot of dime at Shang, at least not more than once. Chinese cuisine outside of China seriously needs a makeover, and Shang is succeeding in making Chinese food a sexy destination for once. I couldn't be happier about that. But to me, it tasted like a flash in the pan.

1 comment:

  1. MANTOU MADE OF WHOLE WHEAT?!?!?! THIS IS AN OOUUUTTTRAAAAGGGGEEEEE

    ReplyDelete