I’ve met a few celebrity chefs in my travels. I ran into Lynn Crawford at a food truck festival, met Mark McEwan at a Second Harvest event and snapped a picture of Guy Fieri through the glass at Lakeview diner. I’m not very bold in these endeavors. I usually only approach if they are available and usually if somebody else has already asked for a picture before me. This might explain my reluctance to Susur Lee. First of all, he scares the hell out of me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him smile and I still remember the way he ripped apart chef Eric Wood during an episode of Chopped Canada.
I was in Toronto at staying in the King and Portland area so I decided to stroll the neighbourhood in order to grab a bite. I was thinking Portland Variety, the new menu at Valdez or maybe a sausage at Wvrst. The last thing on my mind was Lee but as I walked down the sidewalk I looked up and sitting on the patio of his own restaurant was Susur himself. He was dressed in a burgundy blazer with the same stoic look I have always seen on TV. He seemed engrossed in a business meeting with members of his staff so the last thing I wanted to do was interrupt. Instead I texted a few food geeks I knew informing them of my discovery. I attempted to snap a picture but with my already horrendous camera skills it didn’t go well.
I was still undecided about where to dine until I saw a small sandwich board advertising happy hour at Lee which offered $10 cocktails and a small 1/2 price bar menu. Sounded good to me. I walked in and had a seat at the decent size bar. A friendly bartender was waiting and quickly handed me a food and drink menu. The drink menu offered 6 cocktails which had an array of spirits as a base. I started with a burnt orange manhattan (knob hill bourbon, vermouth, grand marnier, cointreau, orange cream citrate). It had a classic taste with a little twist. The bartender even flamed the orange peel for extra effect. Although Knob Creek is not my favorite bourbon, it was still a great cocktail, especially for $10.
The half price bar snack menu consisted of 5 items so I went all in and ordered them all. The first to arrive was the edamame hummus dip ($4) served with sesame crisps, taro root chips and pomegranate. The silky texture was heavenly and the normal earthiness of a chickpea hummus was replaced with a fresher flavour. The punchy pomegranate seeds and taro chips were great compliments.
At this point, a buddy of mine joined me. Shortly after, the spicy tuna tartare and black pepper tuna tataki ($6), spicy jerk chicken ($6) and cheese burger spring roll ($7) arrived. The tartare and tataki were served on a rice cake and topped with red pepper relish. The tuna was prepared perfectly but was blunted by the overwhelming rice cake. The flavours were there, just disproportionate. The cheeseburger spring egg roll was a brilliant concept, especially with the lettuce wrap and pickled vegetable. Once again, like the tuna, the main protein was lost among the numerous other things on the plate. The spice jerk chicken served with the tamarind glaze and chili sauce was phenomenal and easily the best dish of the night. Moist chicken and a very crisp and aggressive seasoned coating was perfect as a stand alone but the sauces enhanced the flavour even further. It was so good we ordered another one.
The last dish on the bar menu was the fois gras and chicken liver pate. Served with ice syrup, ginger mango and ciabatta for $7. It also had some housemade blueberry compote. Although pate is rarely my preferred choice on a menu, this worked on all levels. The texture of the pate complimented with the contrasting sweet and gingery condiments were delightful to the palate. Ironically, I didn’t eat all the pate but the the rest of the plate didn’t stand a chance.
For a second cocktail, I ordered a Mayan Solstice, a tequila and gin based drink with chili infused lime juice, cucumber and green apple (with a little chartreuse). This was fresh and delightful but the heat from the chili was adequately present with every sip. It was a great cocktail.
Whether it was a few cocktails or an general enjoyment of the food and atmosphere, I saw a couple across bar order Susur’s Signature Singaporean-style Slaw. I felt that the guy from “The Source” commercial who sees his creepy neighbour dancing, looks at the speaker and says “I want that”. This $22 salad is one of the most recognized dishes at Lee. It’s an architectural feat, constructed with 19 ingredients. After a detailed description. the waitress skillfully destroyed it into something that could fit in one’s mouth. As much as it was eye candy, it was alliterative mouth candy as well; sweet, salty, sour, spice, savory and sublime.
I stumbled across happy hour at Lee by chance. It started with a chance sighting of Susur itself and lead to an enjoyable meal. Although it is not your typical cinq a sept joint, the staff are welcoming and treat you as well as somebody who might be dropping a few hundreds bucks for dinner. The cocktails were above average and a great value at $10. The bar food was a nice representation of Susur’s intense and diverse flavour profiles although I found the tuna and spring rolls a bit disproportionate. I’d order two jerk chicken right off the bat just to save yourself a wait. If you like pate, Susar’s is a must. The hummus was excellent as well.
The King and Portland area has become the epicentre for the snack food movement in Toronto and Lee has jumped on board (at least between 5 and 7 anyway). The result is a successful menu which offers a sample of Susur’s bold flavours. Both the cocktails and food are a great value but be warned, you may be tempted to indulge in things like the signature slaw or other dishes which cross your path. In the end, although Susur didn’t look overly happy during his own happy hour, I sure did.