The Downside of Shang's Upsell
Shang has all the trappings of a middling hotel restaurant. Here are the requisite overpriced cocktails and the wine list with bottles that are marked up by more than 200 percent. Here are the sleek black banquettes. Here is the waiter who will upsell you ("Are you ready for another drink yet?") with a relentlessness more often associated with terriers, but who will forget to bring you a napkin.
At this point, you are so bored with the place that your eyeballs hurt, but things get decidedly more interesting when you dig in to the disorienting, kaleidoscopic menu, which veers from endive salad to turnip cake to jerk chicken. (Yes, jerk chicken.) This globe-trotting list of dishes is a peek inside the mind of the brilliant, Hong Kong–born chef, Susur Lee. The chef's two Toronto restaurants are both highly acclaimed; Shang, Lee's first New York project, was widely hyped even before it was open. The food is eclectic to the point of being trippy: Though some dishes amaze and some land with a thud, they are all rarely boring.
Lee's cooking is his own invention, the foods of his childhood and the flavors from his travels. Officially, Shang's assortment of dishes is meant to evoke the ways that Chinese immigrants have adapted their food worldwide—in other words, the cuisine of the Chinese diaspora, along with some dishes that are straight-up traditional Chinese.
If that's too esoteric for you (it is for me), I'll give you an example: Jamaica has long had a large Chinese population—hence the jerk chicken. The chicken is cured in a traditional Chinese technique, then rolled in jerk spices and served in neat, juicy little spirals, as a French roulade. Fiery Scotch bonnet sauce and cooling Indian mango purée are puddled on the side. The plate is garnished with a slab of dehydrated, crispy chicken skin, which, a spokesman informed me, appeals to Chinese palates.
Exhausted yet? That's how it goes. The polychromatic flavors and techniques come fast and furious, and some dishes resolve themselves into harmony (the jerk chicken among them), while others end up being merely interesting or totally misconceived. But I'm all for letting a great chef's imagination run wild, even if it produces some dishes I dislike. The real problems at Shang are the high prices and the pushy, insufferable service.
The menu is long, organized into soup, salad, meat, fish, and vegetable offerings, and all the dishes are meant for sharing. Our server informed us that the portions are like "medium-sized tapas," whatever that means. Plates range from $12 to $29, but because you need to order two to three dishes per person, a meal gets very expensive very quickly. It's especially galling when a $19 portion of lobster/duck-egg balls turns out to be just two smallish spheres, and $17 lobster and shrimp croquettes taste like they came from a Trader Joe's freezer. But portion sizes vary wildly. After leaving hungry one night, on the next visit we ordered pork belly, jerk chicken, and lamb chops, all of which are large enough to be considered traditional entrées. Usually, I'd just ask the server if we'd ordered the right amount, but the waiters were so intent on upselling us—suggesting we order "two of those" multiple times—that it's hard to take their word for it.
The good news is that there are several items that succeed flamboyantly. The most memorable dish we tried was the homemade tofu custard studded with shrimp, mussels, and dried scallops, shot through with green tendrils of desert moss and sitting in a bouillon made of duck, chicken, and pork stock. The custard itself is jiggly, milky, and delicate; you slurp it down with the fragrant bouillon, seafood, and moss (the moss is a Chinese delicacy because it symbolizes prosperity). The dish manages to be both briny-funky and ethereal.
The turnip cake—gooey on the inside, crisped brown on the outside, and topped with a cylinder of silky steamed Asian eggplant and zipped with salty preserved black bean—is a wonderful combination of flavors and textures. The foie gras and chicken liver pâté is luscious, especially dolloped with the black currant jam. But I've never met a foie gras I didn't like.
The much-touted Singapore slaw ($16)—which servers are obviously instructed to start pushing as soon as you sit down—is tasty, but not earth-shattering. Yes, it contains 19 ingredients, as you will be told at least three times. "That's almost $1 per ingredient," noted my clever and skeptical friend, Miriam. It's a refreshing tangle of fried taro, chopped hazelnuts, daikon, carrots, and bean sprouts, and is slicked with a tart salted plum dressing.
In general, the various dumplings, fritters, and croquettes are serviceable, and some are very good (like the potato dumplings).
There are no noodle dishes, but there is a stir-fried orzo pasta, dotted with shrimp, pineapple, spinach, and pine nuts. It's meant to be Chef Lee's spin on fried rice, but it reminds me of the fastidiously healthy, colorful salads that my mom deployed from Recipes for a Small Planet or the Moosewood cookbooks. Under certain circumstances, that could be a good thing—but not when it's for $18.
Then there are unmitigated disasters like the shaved char sui pork loin with mustard, green bean, and almond salad. It amounted to slices of deli ham draped over green beans and almonds, and the whole thing doused with a vast quantity of mustard. It's been taken off the menu now, saving other unwary diners from the horror.
One night, we were just finishing our meal under the huffy care of a server who was miffed at us for not ordering what he wanted us to, when chef David Chang of the Momofuku empire sat down right next to us. This was an excellent eavesdropping opportunity, and I was pleased to note that the waiter subjects even VIPs to the same pitch for the "19-ingredient salad" and the "How about I get you started with those dishes I mentioned?" that we sat through. Even fame can't save you from the upsell these days.
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