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Review: Susur New Year’s Eve (very long)

j
Jonathan C Feb 7, 2004 04:52 PM

After hearing so much about Susur, my wife and I finally decided to give it a try. We recently moved to Toronto from New York and are big foodies. After having tried several of the better restaurants in Toronto (e.g. Avalon, the Fifth, North 44, etc.), we still had not eaten anywhere up to the level of Gramercy Tavern, March, Union Pacific, Jean Georges, Blue Hill etc. So many people had mentioned Susur in such hyperbolic terms that it seemed the enthusiasm verged on cultish. Finally, I took the plunge and made a reservation for New Year’s Eve.

The call did not leave a positive impression. I called to ask if there was going to be a special menu as was told that no, there would not be a special menu, only the seven course tasting menu. The thing that bothered me was that the person taking the reservation clearly had no interest in talking to me. He gave me the canned speech about how the menu is not set until the chef goes to the market that day and see what looks good (although one has to wonder what was being delivered to the market on the 31st), how if we were two people we would each get a different menu resulting in fourteen different courses for the table, how the meal was served in reverse with the heavier courses first… blah, blah, blah. Not a good first impression.

We arrive and after a few minutes in the holding area, we are seated. Our server is a young Asian man who obviously had consumed a few too many coffees that day as he was as hyper as a Mexican jumping bean. We aren’t shown a menu as there are no choices for the evening, only the seven course tasting menu ($130 per person). The server takes our wine order.

Our first course arrives: it consists of elk loin with a mountain potato, Cipolini onion and sweetbreads. Neither my wife and I had ever had elk before. The elk is served very rare with a slightly sweet sauce. It is delicious. The sweet breads are perfect with slightly sweet glaze which gives it a light crust. Sweet breads are very rich so the small nugget (about the size of a walnut) was just perfect. The onion and mountain potato were undistinguished and made me wonder why they were there.

Half way through our first course our server returns and asks if we had been served our amuse bouche. I informed him that we had not and that I didn’t realize there was an amuse bouche. The server disappears for a minute or two than informs they will serve the amuse following the first course. So much for the careful progression of courses!

The amuse arrives. It is lobster in aspic gelee with caviar. The gelee was very strongly citrus flavoured – so strongly that it completely eclipsed the sweetness of the lobster. I could have been eating a piece of sponge for all the difference it would have made. As for the caviar, the five fish eggs made no real impact to the dish. As a side note, I know chefs want to include all sorts of “premium” ingredients in the dish description but when its such a small amount, why bother? On this I completely agree with Mark McEwan of North 44 who has repeatedly said there is nothing he hates more than a chintzy portion of foie gras, lobster, etc.
The second course of the menu (third to be served) was squab breast with foie gras, chestnut compote and a truffle reduction. There is little to say about this dish other than that it was insanely good. The squab was not very livery tasting which I found surprising as every other time I’ve had squab, this taste was quite strong.

The third course was veal shoulder stewed in a green curry. On the side there was an artichoke with a shrimp nestled in the cap, chutney and rose petals. This was not one of the more successful courses. The stew was ok but the green curry was so spicy that it obliterated the taste of everything else on the plate. The curry was spicy to the point that I almost found it unpleasant. By way of background, I am of Korean descent and as you may know, Korean food is very spicy so when I say the curry was excessively spicy, it REALLY was too spicy. I don’t know what happened to the artichoke and shrimp but it was completely tasteless (perhaps due to the stew?). It also had the texture of something that had spent too long under a heat lamp or in the oven. Both the shrimp and the artichoke cap had developed a dry, almost waxy “skin”.

The fourth course was sablefish with citrus segments, citrus sauce and a black truffle tuile. Sablefish (a.ka. black cod) has become all the rage since Nobu Matsuhisa made miso black cod his signature dish. The sablefish at Susur had been marinated, I think in a soy sauce based marinade which really highlighted the buttery taste of the fish. It was very good. The citrus segments, which were primarily grapefruit segments, were a bit too strong for the fish. The citrus sauce was a much better match. The black truffle tuile had no discernible truffle taste which was really unfortunately since I love the taste and aroma of truffles.

The fifth course was a smoked braised oyster with black truffles, scallop mouse and a savoy cabbage “shu mai” filled with corn compote. My impression on this course was a big “why?” I am not a huge fan of cooked oysters, as I find that cooking generally overpowers their delicate flavour. Moreover, I don’t know if there was some artistic license taken with the language, but I have no idea why anyone would feel the need to braise something as delicate as an oyster (braising is usually reserved for tough cuts of meat to make them tender). Similarly, why take a perfectly good scallop (which has a fine texture) and turn into a mouse? The braised oyster had a mealy texture which I certainly did not care for. Moreover, the flavour of the braising liquid and smoke completely overpowered the flavour of the oyster. The scallop mouse at least still retained its flavour although I’m not sure converting it into a mouse form added anything to the experience. Actually, I will be more emphatic… converting it into a mouse form took away from the pleasure of eating a scallop. As for the “shu mai,” it tasted like a cabbage leaf with gluey creamed corn inside. This was not a successful course.

The sixth and last savoury course was far and away the worst course of the evening. The course was grape salad with Banyuls sabayon, celery root, dandelion greens and parmesan. I don’t know if the course had been sitting around for a while before it arrived at our table or what, but the sabayon was nowhere in evidence. A sabayon is a kind of frothy preparation and there was nothing like that on our salad. The salad was incredibly bitter and I don’t know why. Celery root generally is not bitter and while dandelions can be somewhat bitter, I had never experienced anything like this level of bitterness previously. The other reason I think the course had been sitting around for a while is that the grains of parmesan cheese had developed a rubber texture which occurs when parmesan is immersed in liquid for a while. Revolting all around! Two bites and both my wife and I were done with this course.

The last course was dessert. Nothing much to say except that it was three chocolate flavoured items which were fine.

So, in summary, of the six savoury courses, the elk, squab were excellent, the sablefish was very good, the veal stew was fair, the oyster and scallop were passable and the salad was terrible.

A couple of observations: First, the food is shockingly variable. Second, the service was not what would be expected from a place like this. It started with making the reservation but continued with the actual service. Our server was so annoying and kept telling us what great service he was providing that at one point I almost told him to shut up and just bring the course in the right order and on a timely basis. Third, my wife and I were sold a bill of goods. We did not get two different menus as promised when I made the reservation. We got the exact same menu with the exception of the dessert. Finally, I think Susur Lee as a chef tries to do too much with each course. I feel like he is a bit like a precocious child, always trying to show off how creative he is rather than being mature enough to have a simpler but perfectly executed dish. Each plate is crowded with a laundry list of ingredients, many which contribute little to the dish. In some cases, I think the “accessory” items on the plate actually detracted from the course.

I’m glad I went but given the spottiness of the food and service, I don’t think I will be going back. Perhaps I am jaded having lived in New York for six years but in my opinion, Susur would be a second-tier restaurant, at best, in NYC. It was far too inconsistent both in terms of food and service to merit anything higher. Incidentally, I don’t think the problems were a function of the restaurant being especially busy as there were at least two empty tables during the evening.

Diner for two with a $61 bottle of was $420 after tax and tip.

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  1. b
    Bumblegirl Feb 7, 2004 05:34 PM

    Wow, great review! You must have an excellent memory :)

    I went a couple years ago to Susur with my mom and had amazing service from the moment we walked in - wonder if the service was off for New Year's or if it's gone down? And my mom and I were generally served different courses (I think one or two of them were duplicates).

    Maybe you and your wife can start trying some of the smaller-name restaurants in town? Personally, it seems like some of the 'better' ones can never live up to the hype ;)

    2 Replies
    1. re: Bumblegirl
      a
      ArtificialButter Feb 7, 2004 11:08 PM

      That was an excellent review- I've always wondered about the hype but suspected it might have too high expectations. I'd be interested to hear about your experience at The Fifth if you still remember...

      1. re: ArtificialButter
        j
        Jonathan C Feb 8, 2004 05:09 PM

        I actually took copious notes during my meal at Susur (which explains the detailed nature of the review). This isn't normal practice for me but I wanted to compare notes with another couple who had been there previously. When I went to The Fifth I did not take notes. My only recollections about the place was that the food was pretty good although by no means stellar. I also recall thinking the chef had a pretty heavy hand with the salt that particular evening (not horribly salty but a bit more than I cared for). Also, the menu can be a bit of a problem if you have any picky eaters in your party. One of the people I was with does't eat fish or organ meats. That seemed to eliminate most of the menu for him.

    2. c
      Chris Feb 8, 2004 12:41 AM

      Great review! Thanks for taking the time to write it. Susur is surely a phenomenal dining experience for Toronto diners. However, if you're looking for something a bit more adventurous, and more similar to an NYC experience, I'd suggest giving Sen5es, The Ultra Supper Club, or for a casual yet still entirely wonderful experience: Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar (go for lunch).

      If at all possible, I'd love to hear your thoughts on any of the other restaurants you've visited since being in the city.

      Cheers bud,
      -Chris

      Link: http://food.muvment.com

      1. r
        Richard Feb 8, 2004 10:51 AM

        A very detailed and comprehensive review, but I can't help feeling you must have caught an off waiter and an off night.

        (I know that's not an acceptable excuse.)

        I get to NY about a dozen times a year and have eaten at all the best restaurants there. Susur might not be in my top 5 if it were in NYC, but it would be in my top 10.

        If you read Manhattan Chowhound regularly, you'll see the debates continue there about all the top places.....everyone catches one of them on an "off" night, no matter how stellar their reputations are.

        I've eaten at Susur 3 times in the last year, most recently an incredible dinner for 14. Service and food were always superb down the line.

        As for other choices, the only place where I feel the food dazzles as regularly is Eigensenn Farm and that's quite a ways to drive.

        Reports on Jamie Kennedy's new place have been incredibly spotty as have those on The Fifth, despite its partisans.

        And my wife ate at Senses just this last week, had their tasting menu and pronounced it nice, but ultimately "a Susur wannabe".

        I'd try it again. I would also make it clear you weren't happy with certain elements of your service etc. last time. They need to know things like this.

        2 Replies
        1. re: Richard
          j
          Jonathan C. Feb 8, 2004 04:57 PM

          I am reluctant to try the place again, especially at $130 per person pre-tax and tip. That is very expensive even by New York standards (and both rent and labour are much lower here). I could understand if service was not up to snuff but what I was really surprised was by how inconsitent the food was. If you look at the six savoury courses, two were great, one was good, one was ok, one was passable and one was terrible. I don't think I have ever run into such a poor batting average at any other high end restaurant. I am certainly aware that every place has an off night, but I never before experienced this level of "offness". The fact that there was a course that was terrible is really pretty shocking. Even if I were to follow your advice and try it again, what could I say? Your food was bad last time. Please make sure it is good this time?

          I am not suggesting that the restaurant is always bad. Obvious you and many other people have had great experiences there. But this level of inconsistency is pretty surprising. Incidentally, I don;t think the problem was caused by it being a particularly busy night. As I mentioned in my original review, the restaurant wasn't even full as there were two empty tables. Of course the kitchen may have been busier than normal because there was only the tasting menu but I feel no need to defend the choice to maximize revenues if it was at the diners' expense.

          Perhaps I will try the place again but I certainly am not in a rush to do so.

          1. re: Jonathan C.
            v
            Vivian Feb 9, 2004 03:16 PM

            Hear, hear.
            Was @ Susur's a couple of years ago for my birthday. What a huge disappointment. In fact, last year we went back to all our old standards for celebrating special occasions (Scaramouche-unfortunately Roberto is gone, may he rest in peace; Truffles; etc) since we knew we'd be assured a minimum level of consistency and standards.
            Everywhere we've been for the last few years has been soooo bitterly disappointing (The Fifth, Avalon-our 3rd try, etc). When you drop $500 for two people, you expect something, anything. At Susur, we didn't even have one great course, it went from good to "gimme a break"; and the service, yikes! I don't know why he is so hyped up. Even at Lotus, the meal I had there that was good was cooked by his sous-chef, he was at a private function. Albeit it was my first taste of goose liver, epiphanic! And one of the few times in my life that a restaurant had really good pepper to offer, not to mention the great creme brulee that was also a work of visual art. When I went back with my spouse and his brother (Susur was cooking), it was most unimpressive much to my chagrin since I had recommended the place. He even changed the creme brulee to some pedestrian thing served in a mini wok of all things.
            I suppose the pathetic service could be due to the fact that I look much younger than I appear, but that shouldn't be any justification for the attitudes of some servers. We've made asses of ourselves at Jump and Canoe and were still treated with deference (another couple of consistent restaurants, the food may not be spectacular but is consistently good as is the service, not to mention the great views).
            I would not go back unless some other poor sot is paying the tab. There are too many other restaurants in this city, not to mention outside of this city (Eigensinn, definitely worth the trip).
            Sorry for the rant, happened to hit a sore spot combined with too much sugar in the system :)
            Eat well, live well.

        2. r
          Rebecca Jane Feb 9, 2004 02:49 PM

          Great review.
          I have not eaten at Susur yet and this is not the first lukewarm response I have heard re. this establishment.
          It seems to me that, while mastering certain dishes, they are having some serious problems with consistency.
          In my humble opinion, the most consistent place in town would be Chiado. The serice is impeccable and the food is always outstanding.

          1. b
            bobsyeruncle Feb 10, 2004 05:12 PM

            I'd never return to Susur. Extremely expensive and pretentious restaurant with food that impresses, but leaves you cold. You just never feel that you're having a wonderful time, but rather a terribly "haute" time. All that, and less, for about $450 for two people. I couldn't tell you what I had in my tasting menu. There were so many little, precious things on each plate. It was all so...busy.

            Go to Avalon, go to Chiado, go to even North 44. Susur? Feh. I think the Toronto media is a little too desperate in trying to show the world that we have a world-class chef. If Susur Lee opened up shop in New York, he'd be smaller than a sardine in a big ocean, especially with the sloppy serving staff he currently has.

            1. g
              Geronimo Mar 29, 2004 06:36 PM

              Out of interest, which restuarants in Toronto are acceptable to you? (I ask because I'm a big fan of Jean Georges in N.Y.)

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