Lee Lee's Hot Kitchen
Representative Dish: Kung pao shrimp, $13
Address: 218 President St.
Bar: Full bar
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. p.m. Friday-Saturday
Costs: Appetizers $4-$9; Entrees $9-$13
Vegetarian Options: Yes
To generalize unrepentantly, French food goes with wine, Thai food goes with beer and Chinese food goes with handwringing.
That doesn't mean there's always trouble afoot when lo mein's on the table. But Chinese take-out might as well be the official meal of crises: When Hollywood directors want to make the point that ground control's lost contact with its spaceship, they order a shot of men with loosened ties eating from wire-handled boxes.
So it seemed fitting that on a recent weeknight at Lee Lee's Hot Kitchen, diners around me were worried. At one table, a woman turned to her friend and asked concernedly: "Do you think it's OK I've been here three times this week?" At another, a man moaned loudly: "I just can't stop eating this food."
A few days later, another group of eaters gathered around Singapore noodles, orange beef, General Tso's chicken and spring rolls from the 2-month-old restaurant. They were disquieted, too. But what bothered them wasn't the depth of their ardor for the dishes, but their striking similarity to the same plates purchased from Hot Mustard, a grittier counter-service joint at the corner of Woolfe and Meeting streets, for the purpose of comparative tasting.
Visually, it wasn't difficult to distinguish Hot Mustard's beef and chicken, which had a redder cast than their counterparts. And stylistically, Lee Lee's contributions stood out for their vinegary edge and floppier meats, which tasted as though they'd made a briefer appearance in the wok. But qualitatively? Everyone agreed that if they'd been presented with two dishes from Lee Lee's and one dish from Hot Mustard, rather than a mirrored line-up, they'd never have suspected an interloper.
Outside of the corner storefront that restaurateur Karalee Nielsen Fallert and her partner, Lily Lei, have transformed into a dazzlingly current and energetic dining space, Lee Lee's food isn't anything special. It's better than the worst local examples of Chinese-American cooking, patrons don't have to worry about an overabundance of grease, aging vegetables or questionable meat, but it's not quite up to the Sam Rittenberg standard set by Zen Asian Fusion, Red Orchid's China Bistro and Riso Noodle House.
Within the confines of the buzzy restaurant, though, it's easy to enthusiastically believe otherwise, which helps explain why Lee Lee's can get away with charging one-third more than Hot Mustard for the same order (a calculation which generously ignores Lee Lee's tendency to fill its containers only halfway.) That the food is unremarkable doesn't detract from Fallert and Lei's aesthetic achievements on a block where the only other significant amenity is an ATM: The restaurateurs deserve some kind of Spirit of Brooklyn award for strikingly hip gentrification.
Of course, there are cocktails, which also make Lee Lee's easy to like. The ginger-happy drinks are about as balanced as a stump speech, but it's all in good fun, which is Lee Lee's area of expertise. The snug room gets its playhouse feel from vivid red walls, interrupted at regular intervals by floor-to-ceiling renderings of carnivalesque posters in High Chinatown style; a gaggle of red birdcages hung over the bar; and windows painted to look as though Lee Lee's has been dishing out chow mein for decades.
It's too bad Lee Lee's familiarity with Chinese-American conventions doesn't inform its food service. The restaurant doesn't honor the cuisine's rituals - hot tea's not free, and the servers only sometimes remember the fortune cookies - nor does it smartly tweak them, in the manner of Mission Chinese Food's legendary kung pao pastrami.
But there is kung pao chicken, kung pao tofu and kung pao shrimp, slick with vinegar that obscures the blistered chili peppers' heat. The core of Lee Lee's menu is a half-dozen traditional preparations that can be applied to a customer's choice of protein, although there are a few outliers, including an unfortunately fatty caramelized pork belly and honey-walnut shrimp, a goopy homage to mayonnaise, candied nut and canned orange flavors that could have won a Good Housekeeping recipe contest in 1952.
There are a few other definite misses: The sugary sauce cloaking the pork dumplings is a shade too close to Coca-Cola, and the black pepper beef recalls every time you didn't realize the soy sauce came out that fast. The scallion pancake is dry, and the kitchen lays the chicken wing breading on thick.
Mostly, though, the food's just fine. The beef and broccoli is textbook, with bright green florets and a briny, deep-brown oyster sauce that isn't overrun by sugar. The black bean sauce has an attractive funk that verges on fishy, and the orange beef is tender. After four visits, though, I couldn't find any dishes better than the rich button ribs, swabbed with honey and plenty of garlic, and the mu shu tofu, a mushroomy tangle of lissome tofu, cabbage, green onions and scrambled eggs, all cut to a similar size. The pancakes weren't quite sturdy enough to make chopsticks unnecessary, but they had an appealingly sweet, floury flavor.
Nitpickers will notice that the short-grained white rice is shy on stickiness, and the cashew chicken is bereft of the wok hay, or breath of the wok, that innately arises from the hot, fast stir-frying at Hot Mustard. But if a clutch of fashionable Charlestonians want to claim that Lee Lee's is serving food unprecedented on the peninsula, what's the harm?
There's nothing fraudulent or cynical about Lee Lee's, but culinarily, it's hardly a trailblazer. For diners to claim otherwise is an insult to the city's hard-working take-out specialists who have long provided affordable lunches to eaters craving the sweet and the sour; the salt and the heat that are the hallmarks of classic Chinese-American cookery. Luckily, Lee Lee's provides one of the area's most diverting dining rooms. There's no better space in which to have a Singapore Sling and not worry.
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.
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