Since I started travelling to Toronto, I have set out to really try and define what the city means to me from a food perspective. My business colleagues in advertising are no strangers to good food and restaurants, sharing their time between Toronto and Manhattan. So, when they suggested Lee’s I did not hesitate for a second to go, skipping lunch in anticipation.
Susur Lee’s claim to fame in their eyes is somewhat kitschy as the “Iron Chef of Canada.” For my associates, he takes national pride into the arena with him, maybe unknowingly. Now, I happened to go during the two week of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and on the day of a Canadian win in women’s hockey, so the nationalism may have been a notch or two above normal.
The first thing I mentioned to my dining companions was how the space Lee’s occupies reminds me more of Portland than Toronto. This part of town is previously home to textile warehouses at the western end of the “entertainment district” on King Street. Exposed wood ceilings, low-slung pin lights and orange “up” lights along the wall set the scene for a great dinner. Floor to ceiling windows allow you to see the snowfall out on King Street and the tables are see-through plastic. Although tinted orange, I mention they resemble plexi-glass hockey boards, maybe a nod to oh-Canada? What the tables accomplish is taking a small space and making not feel so crowded. I think a good sartorial tip for Lee’s (and really anytime) is that shoes make the outfit. In the back, the ceiling is slung low over a horseshoe bar with deep red walls and an oriental red fabric lamp. A subtle and perfect nod to the Asian-inspired food you are about to eat.
On to the food…Kirin in hand, I hit the jackpot as this night was going to be a sampling of the chef’s favorites. Dishes are served “family style” but the portions are such that an individual can order one by themselves, kind of like large tapas. However, this format allows Mr. Lee to do some more interesting things that deserve to be shared like the duck confit wrapped in pastry and topped with goat cheese. Complemented with dried pineapple to bring some sweetness, this dish was sublime, offering different textures and a balance of flavors all meant to be together.
It all started with the signature dish, Singaporean style slaw. People at the table were all shouting in anticipation “it has 16 ingredients”, “No! it has 14”, “No. 18” and on and on. I think I may have even heard a “niner” in there. Those who know me, understand my irrational love of cole-slaw, well this takes it to a whole new level. Crunchy, sweet, spicy, soft, then a hint of sesame oil, next bite, more ingredients an entirely different sensation. Hard to describe but very easy to eat, get one to share and become a Lee insider.