Chinese cooking too clever for its own good.
187 Orchard St., near Allen St.,
Hours: Dinner, Mon.-Sat., 6 p.m.-11 p.m.
CUISINE: Global fusion
VIBE: Glossy hotel haunt
OCCASION: Group dinner, business dinner, date.
DON’T MISS DISH: Singapore slaw with salted plum dressing, turnip cake, chickpea sweet onion fritters.
AVERAGE PRICE: Appetizers, $16; entrees, $28; dessert, $10.
I worry about new restaurants. Especially big, glossy ones with 130
seats to fill. I mean, who could’ve predicted such a frosty economy?
Opening a restaurant requires years of planning. Think of all the
details that have to be settled — financial backers, designers,
vendors, inspections, a liquor license and getting Con Edison to finally flip the switch.
I’m sure the Thompson Hotel Group
had big plans when they first set their sights on the fashionable lower
East Side. The Thompson Hotel and Shang — its restaurant — were still
on the drawing board back when the Dow was over 10,000. But those days
are gone, and you can feel it the moment you walk in the restaurant.
It feels like you’re going back in time — oversized red banquettes,
lacquered decor, bronze mesh chandeliers and the smell of money
It just feels wrong.
Shang is a restaurant with an idea. The chef, Susan Lee, is cooking global Chinese, drawing his influences from some of the countries in which the Chinese have settled — India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, even Jamaica.
Lee has always tried to be different. In Toronto, he decided to serve entrees before appetizers, and in doing so, he made a name for himself.
The fact is, Lee is a really good cook who’s too clever for his own
good sometimes. You can see it in the jerk chicken. He takes a Jamaican
dish, applies a French technique — roulade — and sprinkles in a few
Chinese accents. The result, international warfare. Does the world
really want to eat tiny jerk chicken rolls? It might if they tasted
great, but these don’t.
Too many dishes on this menu taste like cleverness. (Sometimes,
after all, you just want to eat dinner.) And somehow, Lee’s cleverness
is always undermining the protein. The sauces, the condiments, the
accompaniments can be tasty.
But if you order the slow-cooked pork belly, you don’t expect the
best thing on your plate to be the lily bulb and apple puree. I ordered
the crispy-skinned chicken. I remember the sweet and sour onion
marmalade beside it. Also, that the skin wasn’t crispy.
Smoothness is a guiding principle at Shang for Lee and the diner.
He’s a master at it so order anything that sounds silky. Lee turns
seafood into custard, cake into pudding.
One of the best things on the menu is a turnip cake with steamed
eggplant, black bean sauce and shiitake mushrooms. The turnip cake
tastes almost as doughy as gnocchi. It’s also one of the more
traditional Cantonese dishes on the menu. It made me wonder what Lee
could do with straightforward Chinese cooking.
I was ready to hate the $16 Singapore
slaw, especially after the server told me it had 19 ingredients. That
could easily have been 17 too many. In fact, it was terrific. It had
roasted hazelnuts, jicama, daikon, carrots, celery, onion seed sprouts,
pansies, lotus root, fried shallots, etc., etc., etc. It was every
desirable texture you could imagine in your mouth, plus a salted plum
The real inspiration of Shang is simple Chinese food and the way
it’s been adapted all the way around the globe. I’d go a long way for
good, simple, Chinese food.