I don't care what your religion says about eating what and what--that is a sin against the human experience.
So, we went to Shun Lee last night and I took photos. For those who don't know, Shun Lee is a relatively upscale, but also very traditional, Chinese restaurant with two locations in Manhattan (UWS and UES). It's a bonafide uptown institution.
We have been to both locations several times. It is expensive if you are used to paying for good Chinese food in wealthy suburbs heavily inhabited by Chinese Americans (don't let anyone go on about great Chinese food inside a city--such instances are only exceptions to the rule). However, the food at either location represents a respectable effort. We prefer the Upper West Side location ourselves--the service is better, the food is slightly more consistent, and it's in our neighborhood.
We ordered very simple: soup dumplings (xiao long bao) for starters, followed by thousand-year-old eggs and tofu "salad" (more on that later), then the Peking duck main course, and ending with two different Chinese desserts. At the Chinese restaurants I am used to, these things would not necessarily come out in "courses" per se, but Shun Lee tries to mimmic an upscale Western restaurant in some respects.
The soup dumplings are above average for New York City and average overall. They are not very soupy; there is no explosion of flavor and liquified goodness when you bite in. The skins are a bit thick and slightly rubbery. In the best versions, they are thin enough to be slightly translucent, pliable enough not to break easily, but never, ever chewy.
The pork inside was just okay. Though not at all dry, it was over firm. Really, it should be just solid enough to keep form before your teeth breach the surface, and then melt into soft porky mush.
In a move to gentrify and Westernize the dish, two dumplings are brought out to you on a plate. This is very unusual, and too precious for what the dish fundamentally is. Typically, six or so are brought out in a lidded bamboo steamer and shared between diners. Also, if you are going to charge $12 for four dumplings, they better be astonishingly good.
One thing they did do right was supply porcelain spoons and gingered soy sauce. You need both to eat soup dumplings to proper effect.
The thousand-year-old egg and tofu "salad" was very tasty, but again divergent from what I am used to. The way Shun Lee does it, it is one part egg to ten parts tofu. That ratio is way off. It should be more one-to-one. I guess I should have gotten the clue when they labeled it a salad in the menu. But it is nonetheless an odd take to me. Why reduce the egg portion so there is barely any in each bite, and chop it up so small it can barely be recognized?
Maybe the idea was to make the dish less offensive for uninitiated diners. But it seems to me the main component would freak you out in any quantity if it freaks you out. Basically, it's an egg that's been cured in a brine for a few weeks or months. The taste is quite mild in actuality.
They did not carve the Peking duck table-side, but I can't blame them--there isn't all that much space to do it. Also, given the execution, there is no doubt in my mind they are making these fresh and carving them right before serving. It's also clear they aren't holding back any skin or meat in the kitchen.
We came out mainly for the duck, and we were not disappointed. The meat was tender and soft, not at all greasy, and expertly cut. The skin was nicely caramelized and very crispy. The only weak spot was the wrapper (or "pancake"). They were a bit thick, quite dry, and stiffer than ideal. However, they were not brittle and did not break.
I would bet a million bucks that they were bought, not made. You can tell because of how uniform the texture is and how perfectly round they are. When they are freshly made, they come out moister and with more bubble-like irregularities in them. They tend to be somewhat translucent with a slightly oily sheen. They must be served fresh and in a steamer--otherwise they will go stale and stiff before you've finished your duck.
Someone asked how to wrap Peking duck in the other thread. Here's how the Fans do it:
1. Spread hoisin sauce liberally across 60-80% of the surface area.
2. Place two to three pieces of duck meat lengthwise across the center of the wrapper.
3. Place two to three pieces of skin atop the meat.
4. Fold up the bottom of the wrapper, over the piled up meat and skin (as shown).
5. Roll it up firmly, and voila.
See what I mean about the sub-par wrapper? The roll looks way too stiff and neat. With a good wrapper, the roll should look a lot more lumpy and irregular, as the meat and skin will distort the shape. Wrapperfail.
But even with a poor wrapper, the duck was enjoyable. Some will note that we left out the raw scallions. This is a Fan family thing. Feel free to degrade your Peking duck rolls with their crunchy, bitter presence as you like. It is disgusting, but orthodox.
A note on the conspiracy theory that Chinese restaurants give different menus to Chinese customers: it is not a theory. It happens all the time. If your menu does not have Chinese in it, it is bullsh*t. Even at Shun Lee, which the owner has said caters to a clientele that is over 70% Jewish, it would appear this is the case. Our menus were different from everyone else's and each item was listed first in Chinese. The regular menu is English only. Also, the Chinese one is much more expansive.
Some whitepeoplefail around us: (1) ordering sides of sweet and sour sauce and soy sauce, (2) ordering brown rice, (3) ordering dishes as if each were meant for a single person, and (4) ordering fried rice of any variety (you don't want to know how tragically disgusting this particular fail is). Don't do those things.
Nothing is wrong with orange beef or General Tso's chicken (sweet and sour pork doesn't count; it is a pure abomination). I absolutely love those dishes, when done well. Chinese American families eat them regularly, at restaurants and at home. My mother makes the best General Tso's chicken in the universe. But if you order only the General Tso's and some low mein, you are signaling to the kitchen that you have no taste and they should just slather everything in extra syrup to make you happy.
Anyway, when it was time to order desserts, we were not given the dessert menu. The waiter brought us the check instead. Perhaps he knew we wouldn't want anything off of it, but we wanted to see anyway. He came back and handed the menu to us somewhat sheepishly. Quickly scanning through, we saw why he wasn't very eager too show it. Everything was chocolate cake and tiramisu and ice cream. The one acceptable item was the almond jello (which I love, but was not in the mood for).
We were disappointed and asked if there was anything else Chinese. It turns out, both sesame balls and egg custards are available off-menu, depending on availability. Our waiter was doubtful he could get them though, as it was already fairly late in the evening.
But then, he came back all smiles:
Both are fair tries--the egg custards more so than the sesame balls, which are oddly doughy for sesame balls. Usually the exterior mochi shell is a little thinner and chewier in texture, and the sesame-encrusted outside is crispier. This mochi is pillowy soft and didn't have the same gooey wonderfulness I hope for. However, the lotus seed paste filling is fantastic. I'm glad it wasn't red bean (another great love of mine, but not in sesame balls).
All in all, it was a wonderful meal--not because it was faultless, but because it satisfied a craving for legitimate Chinese food. It wasn't the best, but it was good enough and real enough. Maybe that's a low bar, but after living in Manhattan for five years, that's where we are in terms of expectations. It's also one of the better all-around places I've been to in the city. Peking Duck House in midtown is capable of better Peking duck, but their other dishes are notably weaker. Joe's Shanghai's soup dumplings are great, but again, they are very one-note. I've been to a couple of the supposedly great dim sum places in Flushing, but they were also mediocre.
Bottom line: I'm convinced you probably need to leave New York City altogether to get really great Chinese food (Jersey, maybe?), but when you take convenience, consistency, and breadth into consideration, Shun Lee is probably the best option for uptowners. If you think I'm wrong, please let me know where to go. I'll be there next weekend.
Edited by mafoofan - 8/5/12 at 1:37pm