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Shun Lee Palace

Shun Lee Palace is a total time warp, though not quite nostalgic. It
probably wouldn't be unless you were an Upper East Side Jew with a taste for
expensive, not very authentic Chinese food circa 1976. This was one of those
out of the blue dining ideas James gets every now and then. I'd never had
any inclination to visit the place, but he had gotten it in his head that we
needed to try upscale Chinese food.

But I think he was thinking banquet food that Chinese people themselves
would actually eat, not overpriced renditions of Chinese-American fare. Not
that we didn't have a good time. In fact, it was a gas. Shun Lee is a weird
scene that I could appreciate, even if it scared me a bit. While the dcor
is opulent early '90s, the vibe is totally '70s. At our 9pm seating, the
room wasn't terribly full, but the clientele we did eyeball had
personalities big enough to fill the room. There was a nice combo of
caricatures, tourists, wealthy foreigners, and the inexplicably curious like

I was a little unnerved by how they make couples sit side-by-side at
tables facing out towards the room. We've always made fun of twosomes who
choose to next to each other while eating instead of just facing each other.
But we had no choice in this situation. In a way, we were lucky because we
had equally good views of the goings on. I'mmediately to our right, were two
cranky, over-the-top, 60-ish women who were apparently regulars, highly
demanding and totally of a New York I do not know (nor want to). Like they
get together every Saturday night and kvetch (did I just say kvetch?)
about their kids, exes and dead parents, then harass the waiter because they
were told there'd be an eel special and there wasn't.

To our right and down the row was a creepy, troll-like older Indian
gentleman and his much younger, serene Eurasian lady friend. They didn't
really talk, and they also were grumpy, she let the waiters know that he
didn't like fish. A few young-ish white bread couples seemed dazzled by the
ambience. One took photos of her food (I know "photoblogging" is all the
rage, but I just can't abide snapping pictures in restaurants. Maybe that's
an issue of my own) while the other duo ate quickly then paid with
traveler's checks (I didn't know that people even used those anymore).

My favorite table included a dapper Telly Savalas look-alike in a
yachting type sport jacket with a middle-aged woman wearing a bold-patterned
turban scarf and big, tinted frameless glasses. Very Cosmopolitan,
thirty years ago. She could play a rich eccentric on an episode of

I was impressed by the carved daikon swans that certain tables received
as garnishes (we didn't get any fancy frills). The food, not so much. We had
slippery chicken, which is chopped chicken with spinach in a garlicky sauce,
and curry prawns, which were swimming in a curry powder, peanutty gloop. I
actually liked the gloop, it was studded with things like peas, water
chestnuts and red pepper. James insisted it also contained creamed corn,
which is ridiculous. I also had a hot and sour fish soup, which was what it
sounds like.

We barely made it out under $100, which is why this isn't the sort of
novelty meal you can do on a regular basis. And that's why the idea of
regulars and eating Shun Lee takeout is so bizarre to me. Do people just not
get out? Once you enter the uptown vacuum, do you lose all sense of right
and wrong? People love Seinfeld reruns and Woody Allen flicks, so
maybe I'm the one whos warped.

ShunLee Palace * 155 E.
55 St., New York, NY

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