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 Years 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 arent 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 didnt 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 Ive 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 dont 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 dont 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 Im 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 dont 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 dont 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.
Im glad I went but given the spottiness of the food and service, I dont 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 dont 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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