If there were any doubt in my mind about who is the best chef in Toronto, they were put to rest after my recent experience of the intricate flavours presented at Susur restaurant. I pride myself in being able to find and experience the best cuisine that this fair city has to offer; whether it be a mom-and-pop shop, or a classy establishment like Susur. I love to eat and enjoy even more when I’m with friends. My recent experience at Susur was far more than I could ever hope for, so I apologize if you begin salivating at my delicious recollection of the night.
Who Is Susur Lee?
Susur is a celebrated chef in Toronto with his unmistakable trademark long hair and pony tail. Originally from Hong Kong, Susur opened his first restaurant in Canada, but later became the executive chef consultant for the Tong Luk group, overseeing the quality of Singapore’s finest restaurants. (Yes, there’s always a Singaporean connection in my stories!) He opened Susur in 2000 and followed up with Lee right next door in 2004. Susur has received many critical acclaim and accolades; among which being named in the company of the top 50 restaurants in the world on many international lists.
As if those accomplishments weren’t enough, Susur is also 1 of 2 Canadian chefs to compete in the popular Food Network series – “Iron Chef America”. The first being Chef Rob Feenie who beat Masahara Morimoto. How did Susur fare? Amidst bias judging, Susur still managed to win by tying Iron Chef Bobby Flay. Can somebody say rematch? Why do I consider him to have won? Well… it isn’t exactly losing if you are judged to be on the same level as an Iron Chef. But personally, I know Lee won the Canadian bacon battle.
The Special Occasion
She (who shall remain anonymous by request) is a very special friend of mine. Though I’ve known her for over 8 years, I’ve never once really celebrated her birthday. Can you believe that? Time to remedy that oversight in grand fashion! Admittedly, I’ve also been desiring to experience Susur for the longest time; so it was a plot to pamper myself too! Valentine’s day was also drawing near, if there were ever an excuse to do it up, now’s the time! She was indeed a vision to behold in those skirt and boots – the first time I’ve seen her in boots and only the second time she’s worn a skirt in front of me. Pretty as can be! We arrived at 6:30pm, fashionably late as always (but that was my reservation time too!). We were also the last table to be sat for our session. What does that mean?
Sursur opens 5 days a week and only in the evenings. I booked my reservation well ahead as every night is packed. Tonight was no exception. Susur offers two sittings from 6pm to 9pm, and from 9pm to midnight. 90% of the partons choose to sample the tasting menu. Instead of offering a traditional menu, the tasting menu is built each day from whatever inspires Lee at the marketplace that morning. And we are thus rewarded with his creativity!
The tasting menu we chose was the 5 course tasting menu. A 7 course tasting menu is also available, but we wouldn’t have been able to finish it. First, we were already late and there wouldn’t be enough time. As well, if we kept eating past being full, it simply won’t do the chef’s creations justice as we may not enjoy the last 2 courses as much. The tasting works like this:
Tasting menus are served backwards. The meal diminishes in both size and weight from the principal course. On a table of two, neither person is served the same thing demonstrating fourteen (or ten) different dishes throughout the progress of the meal. The menu changes daily based on Susur Lee’s acquisitions at the local markets. For this reason, the tasting menu is not known or disclosed until approximately 5pm on the day it is served.
The Taste Sensation
I was tempted to take lots of pictures, but she was right. Pictures simply won’t do the food justice as you really must taste it! Lee’s fusion cuisine is truly on a different level. The presentation is impeccably beautiful, but even if you know what is on your plate or how it’s prepared (and they will tell you!), you can only guess at the enjoyment you’re about to receive! You will only be pleasantly surprised at the myriad of textures and flavours you would never expect! I’ve never eaten steak with that texture, and that looks like a lotus root, but it’s not one I’ve ever tasted. Both my date and I got different plates on every course. The lamb was done perfectly. The foie gras and cavaier were delectable. The oxtail ravioli was tasty, and the cuttle fish, lobster and even mackarel went superbly with the special sauces infused with Asian influences.
Not only were the food delicious, but the suggested wine pairings were also spot on. Each course was paired with a suitable glass of wine; from a Bordeaux merlot, to an ultra sweet sauvignon blanc from Santa Barbara to champagne or South African white wine. Great wine pairings help to accentuate and draw out the meal’s flavour, but also serves to clean the palette. I reached a new epiphany that night where I experienced for the first time what a perfect wine pairing may feel like. After having the wine, my taste buds reached new heights of pleasure and I also felt refreshed and yearning to try more!
She was a veteran of the Toronto food festival Winterlicious, and has enjoyed cuisine at some of the most famous Toronto eating grounds such as Jump, Canoe etc. As this was also her first time experiencing Susur, I trust her opinion that Susur far outstripped those other venues through creativity alone, but also on flavour and execution!
Throughout the meal, I was able to enjoy the utmost professional service. The waiting staff were knowledgeable, attentive and delightful. I enjoyed my dinner conversations immensely and we both wondered out loud how they decided which guest would enjoy which plates. Was it by gender?
Susur was keeping close eye in the kitchen but also walked out numerous times onto the dining room. He looked serious but approachable, as a host should. However, it didn’t seem like anybody wanted to make contact. Perhaps, they were all in awe or simply stunned from their taste buds. Since it was her birthday, on the final course for desserts, a plate was brought out that was decorated beautifully with the message of Happy Birthday! She made a wish and blew out the candle. (If you are reading this, I hope your wish comes true! *wink* ). To my delight, Susur Lee himself came over to wish her Happy Birthday and ask how were the meals. He shook our hands, and as I looked up to him, feeling that firm grip and his kind venerable eyes and smile, I was feeling special. It was a pity I didn’t have Susur’s culinary book ready in hand for an autograph!
As Susur left for the kitchen, a lady sitting at the table beside us leaned towards me to ask if I realize who just shook my hand. Of course! She remarked, “you’re very privileged”. And that absolutely put me on cloud 9 because she was right. Susur had not made chit chat with any of the tables (that I saw). We were both giggling like school girls throughout the sinfully delicious dessert.
The End Of The Meal, But Not The End Of The Experience!
The meal came up to about just over $350 for the 2 of us. With the wine pairings and the quality of the food, I was expecting upwards of $400 to $500. I was very surprised! I felt compelled by my happiness to give a 20% tip. And if you argue that I did not tip enough, I would be very inclined to agree.
We were also the last table to finish due to our lateness as the wait staff rushed to get tables prepared for the next session. As we head towards the coat rack, Susur was standing there politely reassuring if we had a great experience. I was able to chat a little more with him, explaining that I am returning to Singapore this summer. He suggested for me to look up some of the restaurants he used to be involved with. And then he did the unexpected! He personally went back to my table, and picked up the origami table decoration and offered me to take it as a souvenir. He also invited me to come back February 20th – 24th for his annual Chinese New Year celebration. 2007 is the year of the Pig.
This invitation brings a dilemma to mind. I would love for nothing better than to be a Susur regular. I would die a happy person if all I accomplished in life was that. But could I afford another round so quickly? This night’s bill is almost my monthly blogging income (for a good month). I’m very proud of what blogging has given me. And who would I take to Susur on those dates? The girl I have in mind won’t be available during that time! Sigh….
I also want to try out Lee, his restaurant next door. Another friend Wendy cautioned that once I’ve tried Susur, Lee would be no comparison. Lee is headed by one of Susur’s long-time sous chef and the menu is more Asian rather than European in flair and more affordable. I’m still confident that my senses will enjoy the Lee experience too. So it’s definitely a future trip, if not anything but to prove Wendy wrong. LOL
Lastly, I thought about coming back to Susur around July 20th by inviting my best friend Mike and his girlfriend Alison to the experience. My only concern is that the tasting menu is best experienced in pairs. In this situation, 3 IS a crowd, so I need to find a date for that night too! Sigh…
But even eating alone is not a bad thing, especially if you are enjoying Susur!