October 13, 2014 | BITE: My Journal
Shun Lee West Sees Red
Avoiding the actual chiles, our crew cheers silken frogs’ legs with just the right amount of heat.
Avoiding the actual chiles, our crew cheers silken frogs’ legs with just the right amount of heat.

          Suddenly, like a smart dowager with good bones and a skilled plastic surgeon, Shun Lee West is vibrant and glowing again. “Come see what I’ve done,” proprietor Michael Tong had invited. “Come for dinner with two or three friends.”

Why do Chinese brides wear red? Because it’s good luck and a smart wakeup at Shun Lee West.

          Somehow, I knew it would be red. Good luck Chinese red. After 23 years of stylish, mysterious, sexy black, it would have to be red. Yes, it is red, bright red. The cherry red carpet with a tattoo of black dots is new. Napkins tucked into glasses bloom like poppies. The waiters’ shirts are red too. Michael’s tie tonight looks faded coral with all that oompah red.

Snorting paper dragons still circle the room, now in a new ruby shoes glow.

          We are six with Michael and his devoted Julia around the revolving lazy Susan. Michael advises us to crack open the Shanghai soup bun and douse it with ginger threads and black vinegar. I suck out the mingled juices of crab and pork. The enveloping robe of dough is a bit coarse compared to some soupy bundles around town, but the inside is glorious.

Pink napkins are now red and waiters wear red shirts under their usual black vests.

          I’m not expecting all that much, to be frank. Although my late mate was a big fan of Shun Lee’s thunderously popular carryout, I could only eat my favorite hot and sour soup. I’d order a vegetarian version so I knew it would be blended to order. From once being my favorite spot in town for Chinese food, the eat-in fare now seemed stickier, thicker, saltier, gummier. And very expensive. We came one evening just the two of us, ordered his favorites. The service was beyond overweening as Tong decreed. But I recalled the glorious Chinese renaissance of 1979 and mourned the kitchen loos of discipline and finesse.

Delicate crab, picked by hand from the shell of crabs bought live, is wok’d with white wine.

          Now we are eating something that looks like baby food. It is fresh crab dotted with roe, “picked by hand from the shell,” Michael advises us. “Not from a jar or a can.” It is delicate and exquisite, sautéed with egg white, a sensuous porridge. The lone strawberry alongside is a Shun Lee classic, a shrimp dim sum.

He just can’t help himself. Tong is so proud of serving us six-to-a-pound monster prawns that cost $40.

          Michael instructs the captain to set the “swimming prawns” on the lazy Susan so we can marvel at their size. There are just six prawns, unusually large. They were live, too, he assures us, just minutes before a quick dance in the wok. “I don’t want to show off, but these are six to a pound. Forty dollars right there.”

          The captain sends the outsize creatures spinning around. “Chinese people will eat the shell,” Tong confides. “Then they go for the meat in the head. Americans don’t want to get their fingers sticky.” The rare beasts are delicately cooked in soy and ginger. I find myself eating the shell too. And sucking the meat around the head, striking a blow from my more intimidated compatriots. Of course there are damp towel rolls waiting for clean-up.

Tong is sanguine about celebrity regulars, fond of local habitués and proud to draw fussy Chinese.

          Tong has suffered the timidities of his customers. He has affection but little respect for his longtime habitues: the loyal Upper West Siders that first came to Shun Lee in their 20s or 30s or 40s and are still regulars now, shorter and greyer, the wives blonder.

To buy live pigeons for tonight’s squab, Tong counts on China town markets.

          “Americans won’t eat squab,” he assures us, “Especially if they know it is pigeon.” He ignores me when I tell him there is always squab on the menu at Jean-Georges. We contemplate a platter of bronzed birds under a tumble of Technicolor shrimp puffs before the waiters divide them among us.

I like my squab rare, but even cooked through, tonight’s bird is tender and juicy.

          The squab is not rare or even rarish, as I had requested, but it’s delicately caramelized, surprisingly tender and juicy. “We buy them fresh in the Chinatown market, “ our host advises. The frog’s legs were bought live in the market too, he adds. “Americans don’t eat frog either,” he despairs.

          Meanwhile all of us (except the dignified Julia) are moaning and exclaiming over these frogs in hot peppers, the sensuous flesh, the blast of chile. I’ve never tasted any frog appendage as silken. Luscious little shrimp-and-pea-sprout dumplings are scattered alongside.

I’d forgotten how much I love the Shun Lee’s crispy whole sea bass with spicy bean sauce.

          The crispy whole sea bass, served with sautéed pea greens, verges on torrid too.  “Do I taste ma?” I ask Michael. My mouth has become mildly numb. I suspect it is ma, the paralyzing Szechuan peppercorn. It’s not actually disabling as I remember it at a banquet in Chengdu. But let’s just say, the heat is cozily unignorable. 

          “Yes. Americans don’t want to eat spicy,” Tong laments on cue.

          “Is there more fish?” I ask in case he hasn’t noticed that nothing is too spicy for us. He looks upset. The pork has already arrived. I’ve been rude.

          “I ordered a small fish,” he says.

          “The fish was so wonderful.  It was just enough,” I assure him.

A small pillow of pork, then miraculous dan dan noodles with “ma” peppercorns to numb your mouth.

          The crew has set two small bowls in front of each of us. In one, a glistening square of honey-braised pork belly. In the other, dan dan noodles. “You peel the skin off the pork and eat it,” Michael instructs. “Then scrape away the fat to get the meat.” I’m not a big fan of most pork belly. It doesn’t let you pretend you’re not eating fat when clearly you are.

          But the noodles are a showstopper. “Mix the noodles up,” Tong urges. “There are layers underneath.” Nothing I have eaten in the name of dan dan noodles lately has prepared me for the luscious complexity in this little bowl. It’s the same recipe for Chinese or Caucasians apparently -- black vinegar, sesame paste, rice wine, minced pork, fine chopped peanuts, preserved bok choy. But the more numbing imported Szechuan peppercorns, finely ground, will go into the dish for Asians version versus black peppercorns for innocents and scaredy cats.

I took this shot of the dragon’s head just to see if I could figure out how to use my lens.

          The room is full now, a mix of neighborhood loyalists and young Chinese couples. My friends spotted Larry David dining early. Kristen Stewart  (“Twilight”) is in the room, a captain announces. “I’m not getting up,” says Michael, although he pops up several times to greet regulars and Chinese friends at an eight-top banquet round next to ours. Now Michael Moore is sighted. Will he rate the numbing peppercorns?

Warm walnut soup is followed by fresh fruit: pineapple, honeydew melon and grapes.

          Enter dessert. Warm walnut soup has never moved me. Perhaps it’s for Julia, or Michael himself, to satisfy a Chinese need for a homey classic. A platter of seasonal fruit  -- honeydew, pineapple, grapes -- is more my idea of a perfect finale.

Tong confesses that everything we ate that night can be ordered from the Chinese menu.

          We kiss goodnight and compliment the host, who has confessed that aside from the extra large shrimp, everything we ate is listed on the house’s Chinese menu. That’s the secret. You won’t see the Chinese menu unless you ask for it. No need to worry, it’s in English too, for Asian guests who don’t read Mandarin.

I’m glad no one persuaded Tong to give up the scary red-eyed monkeys that cavort at the bar.

          I loved Shun Lee West all in black when it arrived in 1981. It felt sheltered and sexy inside one of the tall black velvet booths. The translucent dragon snorting around the room high up just under the ceiling made me smile. The paper monkeys with red eyes evoked Dorothy and “The Wizard of Oz.” Scary. But also they were a reminder that Michael and my late ex-husband Donald Forst are both monkeys in Chinese astrology. I’m pleased to see this Shun Lee menagerie -- framed now against a backdrop of red -- survives the uplift. Not to mention the whole crispy bass in spicy bean sauce. I’ll be back.

          43 West 65th Street between Columbus and Central Park West. 212 595 8895. Monday to Friday noon to midnight. Saturday 11:30 am to midnight. Sunday 11:30 am to 10:30 pm.

Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

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