Tuesday, January 19, 2016


Shun Lee Palace offers genuinely Americanized Chinese food, of a quality better than your corner hole-in-the-wall, but with prices that are certainly more on par with standard New York dining as well.  You can eat very well here, especially if you can disregard the dated and aged decor (its cousin further west is somewhat more modern in appearances).  Service is swift and smiling, if slightly clownish in ill-fitting, military blue busboy uniforms.  Mostly their English is serviceable, and some speak quite well, enthusiastically deciphering the menu and weeding out food allergies and sensitivities, for which the restaurant is astoundingly conciliatory.

As for the food, nothing we had wasn't perfectly tasty.  Nothing was particularly challenging: even the heat levels are rather subdued on dishes marked spicy, but given their concern with catering to individual circumstances, I'm quite sure they'd amp it up if you asked.  That said most dishes are flavorful enough, and since we were eating banquet-style, there were more than enough examples from every quadrant of the menu. And there are certainly novelties beyond chow mein: we started off with a raw jellyfish salad which isn't on the regular menu.  Makes me
 wonder if there's not one of those Chinese-only, save-all-the-good-stuff-for-the-natives type version skulking around outside the reach of the average New York patron.  But that was all right with me on this count: admiring the decorative orchid was as close as I come to eating raw jellyfish.  I was a big fan of the shell-on shrimp, however, served with dense little hillocks of rice stuffed with sausage and a tangled tuft of ribboned green onion.  Vegetarians comforted in a Buddha's Delight, a hodge-podge of cubed vegetables and tofu to wrap up in crispy leaves 
of  iceberg, a salty, zesty plum sauce aside for dipping.  Baked lobster with ginger was a highlight, and one of their specialties.  Hacked into shell-on chunks glazed with a black bean sauce and zippy ginger, I could've done well with just this and the platter of garlicky bok choy and giant shittake mushroom caps.   Even though I love eggplant, I was less thrilled with Shun Lee's Schezuan version, basically a one-trick pony with Hunan heat and little more.

But a nourishing broth of black chicken was surprisingly alluring.  The dark-skinned carcass just floats there, unceremoniously, in its rich golden juices, but the meat unprecedentedly tender and imparts such profound flavor that its uncomeliness is swiftly dismissed.    Smooth, chewy Dan Dan noodles finally punch with some heat- their "two-chili" designation living up to its prophecy.  A crispy whole sea bass had a one-chili spice alert, but it was relatively tame... nor was it necessarily sea bass.  I asked the waiter what type of fish it was, suggesting sea
 bass, but he said no- even thought there was a sea bass on the menu- and he couldn't come up with a more accurate alternative, either.  But that's all right.  Whatever fish it was was fresh and flaky, ideal swabbed with daubs of the ruddy coating of sauce studded with green onions and tasty fried bits.

And being a "fine dining" restaurant, actual dessert options present themselves aside from a simple fortune cookie and wedge of orange (not that there's anything wrong with those).  These are fried bananas or a candy apple fritter, mind you, or a sweet tapioca rice.  We tried the Shanghai crepe with red bean soup.  I'm not sure if the crepe was filled with chocolate or bean- it was more sugary-sweet than anything, but the crepe was thin and pliant, the sweet soup of red beans cool and earthy.   A chewy mochi-esque dumpling floated above, the small beans lilt to the bottom for texture.   It paired well with the warm cups of weak tea held over from dinner.

So is Shun Lee.  It's a deftly executed array of mostly familiar Chinese food, fresher and more intriguing than take-out, and with some gems on a menu it would take a lifetime to get all the way through.  For big parties or big wallets, Shun Lee offers a certain cache.  And if your just in search of an upgrade from your neighborhood joint, they do, in fact, deliver.

155 East 55th St
T: 212.371.8844

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