Mr. Lee occupies an enviable social-climbing location – on the square behind TsUM, looking across to the Bolshoi Theatre, and upstairs from social-scene-essential place-to-be-seen Vogue Caf?. The Reception Desk area would put many a snooty hotel to shame, and the presence of so many black-suited heavies as you enter the establishment is not, perhaps, the welcome the owners originally intended. It is, however, exactly the atmosphere that seems to appear to the exclusively male corporate clientele.
Our drinks were brought quite quickly, and my Singapore Sling
(450 RUR) was a zesty mix and well-made. Not so Emilia’s Mai-Tai
(also 450 RUR), however – which we sent back. It returned refreshed and with a more obvious taste of rum and lime – although in my book, it’s a cocktail properly served in a highball glass – not a whisky-tumbler, ehem.
The interiors are an unusual - although not unpleasant - amalgam of the usual Novikov obsessions (bookcases with fake old books in them, wine-racks with old bottles) with bits of oriental bric-a-brac allegedly fetched from Singapore by the owner in person. A series of large oriental chandeliers are among the more fortuitous elements – some rather nasty hardwood carvings left the impression of “what can we stick in this empty space?”. You get the impression that he opened the restaurant because his wife wouldn’t let him keep all this stuff at home. (Hardwood logging for this kind of tat wrecks rainforests – sad to find no-one cares about this). The emphasis is on costly luxury – or at least its exterior trappings. A second dining-room adjacent has attractive windows where you might enjoy the daylight, or views onto Moscow revellers outside by night.
Conspicuous consumption and wallet-waving are what Mr. Lee is all about. There are dishes placed strategically on the menu to permit extravagant glad-handing and corporate entertaining one-upmanship – such as Shark’s Fin Soup
, which comes in at around twice the price of a nice supper in other establishments at an extraordinary 2300 roubles. Emilia was overwhelmed by indifference after trying it, but that’s not the point – the point is that it’s cost a stack. I was not only morally shamed into taking the cheapest soup on the menu in response (although hardly a snip at 400 RUR), but also mesmerised – what was Gazpacho with Avocado
doing on a “pan-asiatic” menu at all? Sadly it seemed that any non-european food qualified as “pan-asiatic”, although it wasn’t a bad gazpacho in itself. We’d preceded the soups with some hot starters Crab & Prawn Spring Rolls
(an eye-watering 900 RUR), and Fried Crab Wontons
(950 RUR). In fact the crab wontons weren’t fried, but they were delicious anyhow, and served on a succulent reduction of seafood pan-juices that had Emilia begging for more – the star item of the evening, in fact. When you pay $33 for a portion of Spring Rolls, then frankly you expect something pretty spectacular. These aren’t – a great deal of pastry and half a prawn, all disappointingly flabby and dry. Ladling-on the accompanying mango sauce helped them along – but you shouldn’t have to.
Like many self-styled “Asiatic” restaurants in Moscow, Mr. Lee carries a sushi side-menu – something which tells you more about the clientele than the intentions of the management. We took a single 4-piece portion of Dynamite Spicy Rolls
(450 RUR – less than 100 roubles per roll!) to share, to check them out. Rolls they may be – spicy they’re not.
Finally to the main courses – wok dishes, as befits a Singapore-inspired (if not actually, err, Singaporean) eaterie. Here we had both the best and the worst. The Tom-Yam Prawns
(800 RUR) came recommended by the chef, and they’re scrumptious things indeed – served in a sticky-sweet sauce with a tinge of spice (I’d have preferred rather more spice), and topped with crispy fried noodles. This was, indeed, the kind of food we’d hoped to find at Mr. Lee. Regrettably Emilia’s choice was a failure. Scallops in Pepper Sauce
(750 RUR) were a way of taking a delicious fresh and delicate ingredient like scallops – and smothering their taste entirely with a gluey and overpowering sauce. Once again the Novikov obsession with taking great world cuisine and making show-off bling-food out of it pulled the carpet from under a potentially winning dish.
Mr. Lee belongs to the era before the Financial Crisis – the days when money flowed like water. The prices are unjustifiable for this kind of food – especially when it can be enjoyed in equally-nice restaurants elsewhere in Moscow for far less. Frankly it would be cheaper to fly to Singapore in person than eat at Mr. Lee. (There is, we should mention, a Business Lunch menu at 500 RUR on weekdays from 12:00 until 17:00). But Mr. Lee isn’t really about eating at all – but playing “who’s got the biggest expense-account credit card”. I didn’t feel comfortable in this environment, and frankly when Emilia suggested we get coffee and dessert elsewhere, I leapt at the chance to leave.