Setting the standard for haute Chinese cuisine in New York City since 1971, Shun Lee Palace and its sister restaurant, Shun Lee West, have delighted an estimated 10 million diners with an array of classic and original Szechuan and Cantonese dishes. If ever there were a special-occasion restaurant, Shun Lee Palace sets that standard too. In fact, in the two hours we were there, we heard “Happy Birthday” sung three times, and a fellow at a corner table sure looked like he was proposing to his girlfriend.
Executive chef and owner Michael Tong has overseen every last detail of the food, service and lush décor, by Adam Tihany. It’s a complicated space, with plenty to look at everywhere you turn. Colorfully striped upholstery adorns the banquettes and chairs at the crisply clothed tables. Track lights snake around the ceiling behind a long Plexiglass runner that twists and turns along with the lights. The staff, overseen by ever-alert manager Jerry Li, is friendly and attentive. And busy!
The moment you’re seated, you are brought puffy sheets of fried wonton dough with ramekins of hot and sour sauce and that wonderful sinus-clearing Chinese mustard, China’s answer to wasabi. Alongside is a bowl of totally addictive honey-glazed walnuts.
A cool heap of hot-and-sour cabbage has a nice slow afterburn. Little ribbons of carrots wind through the shredded crispy Napa cabbage, and the dish—surely a cousin of kimchi—has distant notes of ginger and toasted sesame oil.
Szechuan boiled dumplings are stuffed with ground pork, minced black mushrooms and scallion bits, and are lightly sauced with a spiced up soy sauce with black vinegar and chili oil.
We’d been told that the signature dish at Shun Lee is Beijing duck, and it must be, because from the moment we arrived, we noticed a number of diners had ordered it. A whole large grilled duck is brought to the table on a cart, where it is carved by a past-master sous chef. First the crisped skin is sliced into ribbons, then the deeply flavored meat is carved, and all are tucked—make that stuffed—into house-made crêpes with scallions and rolled into a fat burrito-like tube and served with a bowl of hoisin sauce. No fuss, no do-it-yourself—just deep duck deliciousness that will make your eyes roll back in your head. The roasted duck’s legs are served on the side. The dish is so understandably popular that you don’t even have to order it in advance—there’s always plenty of slowly grilled duck on hand. One order is really enough of an entrée for two.
Veal scallops are sautéed and napped with a gingery barbecue sauce and stirred with straw mushrooms, which are only available canned and are virtually tasteless, but are treasured for their satiny texture.
Beef chow fun is a sumptuous Cantonese peasant dish featuring wide smoky noodles and nuggets of tawny beef. The noodles were a little too doughy; I guess I’m used to those wonderful slippery fat noodles you get from the noodle carts on the streets of Chinatown.
Desserts in most Asian restaurants are little more than an afterthought, if they even exist. Often, you’re offered little more than pot of tea and a bowl of sliced fruit. Not at Shun Lee. Almond butter cookies arrive with fortune cookies, and wonderful Shanghai fried crêpes are stuffed with slightly sweet red bean paste and served piping hot. Best of all was a bowl of medium-pearl tapioca in a warm and creamy coconut milk soup—not at all too sweet, so that the coconut flavor prevailed.
There is simply no reason to doubt that Shun Lee Palace will thrive for another 40 years, and probably beyond.
Shun Lee Palace
155 E. 55th St.
Between Lexington and
Entrees: $27 to $35
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