A few days ago I went to Shun Lee Café (on the West Side) for the first time with some of my family. The place was insanely busy, and we were lucky to get a table without reservations, and in fact the group behind us who came in was turned away. I had pretty low expectations, both from the reviews I had read and the general combination of the décor/location/stated mission. The waiter seemed sort of miffed when we told him we were only drinking tap water and beer, but the girl who took care of us for most of our flatware and glass refilling needs was very nice, and in fact so attentive she came over several times when one of us made a particularly emphatic conversational gesture. Then came the dim sum. Certainly it was on the right carts, and there were big piles of it, and the dining area is plenty small enough to always be able to find what you want. In general all of it had the defect which all but the best dim sum places fall prey to: sitting around too long. For this reason I didn’t even try any of the fried options. The condiments on the table included decent hot mustard, weak but nicely garlicky soy sauce, sweet and sour sauce (didn’t try it), and a very mild chili oil.
Pork Shumai – Very nice rich porky flavor. If they hadn’t been a little tough and chewy from being too long out of the steamer they would have been fantastic
Steamed Shrimp Dumplings – Decent. Certainly the freshest tasting of the dim sum options, but not bursting with the sweet shrimpy flavor the best ones have.
Steamed Shrimp and Scallion Dumplings – Similar problems to the plain shrimp dumplings, but slightly compensated by the shredded cooked scallions. Slightly worsened by the toughened dried out wrappers.
Rice Noodle Roll with Shrimps – This was where the shrimp deficiency was most apparent. The shrimp were ok, but not nearly sweet enough. My personal theory is that the shrimp were much too large for dim sum.
Rice Noodle Roll with Duck – If I hadn’t been told it was duck I wouldn’t have known. Completely dominated in both flavor and texture by mushrooms. That having been said, it wasn’t half bad. I’ve never had a mushroom roll before, and flavor of the sauce was nice and hearty.
Then came the dishes we ordered off the menu.
Spicy Sesame Noodles in Sauce, Noodles in Minced Meat Sauce – Both of these were somewhat disappointing. Nice textures of noodles, but very muted flavors. I’m not sure I could have told the difference between them with my eyes closed. The Minced Meat Sauce had the most potential with lots of nice chunky minced meat and broad bean in the bottom of the bowl.
Szechuan Eggplant – Faaaaar too sweet for my taste. Possibly even more egregious than the airport food court versions.
Roast Pork in Scallion Sauce – Absolutely delicious! I was unimpressed when this arrived at the table; it looked like it was covered in a standard Gloppy Brown sauce, but the taste was amazing. The pork had that incredible mellow richness and intense-but-not overpowering smokiness that you sometimes find in the best Southern barbeque. The scallions had been cooked just enough to calm their flavor without eliminating it, and just enough to be tender without being mushy. It was an excellent example of taking a phenomenal but traditional base ingredient (Cantonese roast pork) and making it even better and more complex.
Sliced Duckling with Young Ginger Root – This dish was the reason I wanted to write this review. I have had this dish in many, many restaurants, and I have always enjoyed it. The Shun Lee Café rendition was, without any doubt at all, the absolute best version I have ever had! It was executed perfectly with huge tender shreds of duck. The ginger was also in large chunks, but had been mellowed somehow so that the richness of the duck and the sharpness of the ginger intertwined ethereally. I feel like I finally understand how this dish is supposed to be made. I can only hope it hasn’t ruined me for the same dish at other places. I would stop by here just for an order of this dish, and I can already see that it’s going to be one of those items for which I am occasionally struck with overpowering cravings. If you like shredded duck and ginger, make sure to stop in here soon!