LEE (603 King West, at Portland, 416-504-7867) Complete meals for $65 per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Average plate $12. Open Monday to Saturday for lunch noon to 2:30 pm and for dinner 6 to 10:30 pm. Closed Sunday. Licensed. Access: two steps at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NN Rating: NN
Susur Lee is a perfectionist. Any one would be who's eponymous temple to epicureanism has been hailed as the greatest restaurant in Toronto, if not one of the world's most celebrated.
So you can understand the salivating among the chattering classes when word got out that the acclaimed chef was opening a second resto right next door to the original, a more casual and affordable spot known simply as Lee.
From the moment it opened its doors mid-September, Lee has been the hottest boîte in town. No question it's gorgeous. From the street, a wall of glass reveals a long wooden banquette occasionally padded with purple French provincial cushions flanked by tables for two topped with thick translucent slabs of pink plexi.
Behind it, a floor-to-ceiling scrim screened with images of Hartz Mountain parakeets rises to roughly exposed floor joists overhead. A stairway to the second floor has been ripped out, leaving a post-modern empty space to nowhere.
Come lunch, every Eames-style moulded plywood chair gets taken by a Pavlovian crowd of media and fashion types interspersed with the odd German tourist. No one seems to notice that the fusion-lite fare in front of them - described by servers as "small and meant for sharing" - isn't quite up to Susur's stellar standards.
Arriving promptly at noon and despite having a reservation, the Literary Device is escorted to the worst seat in the house, a deuce directly next to the washrooms and busy kitchen. Ignoring the recommendations that someone has obligingly checked off in ballpoint pen, she scans the well-handled menu for the budget bento boxes - combos like caramelized black cod with Cantonese preserves alongside chicken and shrimp satay, Singaporean slaw and chilled watermelon soup ($25) - that she's heard all about from other visitors. They're not there.
"We had a delivery problem," our server says vaguely, again pointing out that we're to order several dishes and split them between ourselves like tapas.
Concept understood, we order six. We also comprehend chef Lee's revolutionary predilection for serving his famous tasting menus at Susur in reverse. But whether the random parade of plates that follow this lunchtime is an intellectual exercise or mere ineptitude beats us. And considering their size and price, Lee's no bargain.
The first to arrive is a small stylish bowl under-flowing with pleasant cubes of skinny Asian cukes doused in sweet soy dressing and tossed with a few toasted sesame seeds ($8). It's followed by another half-portion of gingery squash soup garnished with a fine dice of Chinese chive ($6). But how exactly does a group divvy up soup? Straws, anyone?
Glorified pub grub, an easily divisible starter of tempura-battered calamari is a winner nonetheless, especially when dunked into its accompanying chili-fired Caribbean jerk-style peanut dip ($12). A feast for the eye but impossible to eat, deep-fried matchstick frites in a great delicious tangle squiggled with garlicky aíoli ($5) disintegrate when you try to spear them with a fork and break like brittle twigs before they reach the mouth.
Equally confounding and four bites max, a diminutive pair of crepe-like cannelloni get incongruously stuffed with luxe shreds of duck confit and layered with creamy chèvre, a frazzle of flash-fried herbs and a chunk of spice-dusted pineapple ($14). And three otherwise tasty but smallish slices of pork loin over a puddle of mashed celeriac ($12) seem like a main course where the other half's gone missing.
We finish with a deflated square of baked-to-order chocolate cake spread with sweet banana purée that looks as if it could do with a few more minutes under the light bulb of an Easy Bake Oven.
Back the next day, we're eventually seated on the prized banquette. But again, what follows is a series of servings plopped down at table in no discernible order.
A lovely summer soup of chilled watermelon dolloped with a chiffonade of mint ($6) trails five everyday butterflied shrimp in chili-garlic paste ($12) and a tiny pizza - think Ritz cracker - spread with puréed green tomatillo, pink tomato and a daub of goat cheese ($10). Next up, a disappointing satay quartet - one skewer each of turmeric-tinted pork, beef, chicken and shrimp ($12) - that would not be out of place on the card of any cheap Thai trat in the city.
Why the kitchen - helmed by Jason Carter, Susur's long-serving sous - would combine four perfectly palatable Chinese mushroom dumplings with ravioli-esque Ital tomato sauce and melted cheese ($10) is a mystery. And a nosh-concluding 2-inch-diameter lemon tart's custard ($5) recalls instant pie filling.
Perhaps it's all an ironic in-joke akin to the frieze of a crying clown that overlooks the bar?
It's not that Lee is bad, it's just not that good. And the server's right - there's definitely a delivery problem.
I could conclude with a smart-ass allusion to the emperor's new clothes, but somehow I don't think the frenzied foodies blindly stampeding to Lee's front door would get the point.