It's too easy to forget about Susanna Foo, in part because there is so much competition these days, but also because she now concedes she did not have her kitchen staff where it needed to be when she made her unremarkable Center City comeback at SuGa two years ago in partnership with her son Gabe. But a recent visit for brunch was a happy reminder that one of the legendary elders of Philly's restaurant revolution is still actively evolving what she does. Instead of relying on the upscale fusion fare that shot her to national acclaim as an innovator in the late 1980s, Foo, in recognizing the increasing awareness of authentic Chinese regional cooking, has decided to "go back to my roots" and draw more direct inspiration from her annual return trips to Taiwan and the Chinese mainland. Tasting events featuring high-quality regional teas (Feb. 28) reflect one of her great passions.
On the menu, meanwhile, new items showcase her distinctive takes on dishes from her travels, interpreted with the kind of Western refinements she brought to her upscale dining room when it was one of the best destinations on Walnut Street. For example, the tripe and tongue have been deleted from her version of cold fu qi fei pian beef salad, but the thinly shaved "ma la beef shank" is still one of the most tender and flavorful I've tasted, red cooked for hours in Chinese wine with Sichuan peppercorns and star anise before it's cut into thin pads splashed with a complex brew of roasted chili oil lightened by a Vietnamese lime vinaigrette tinged with fish sauce and jalapeños.
A deep-fried surprise of crispy salt and pepper pork was inspired by a popular dish she saw on her recent trip to Taipei. As always, it's Foo's attention to technique and details that elevate her rendition. Medallions of Pennsylvania pork loin are tenderized in a gingery marinade of brandy and soy, then crisped to order in a tapioca flour batter for extra crunch. Dusted in aromatic spice salt touched with peppercorns, fennel, and coriander, then a red and green confetti of spicy-sweet peppers and scallions, it's as festive as it is flavorful. As the centerpiece of one of the restaurant's $12 lunch and brunch bento boxes — including soup and rice — it's also a tremendous bargain, which was never a word often associated with Susanna Foo. But this legendary chef won't be forgotten: She's still ready to compete.
— Craig LaBan