Center City's residential growth is being fueled in part by empty-nester suburbanites seeking bright lights.
Susanna Foo, the chef/restaurateur who raised her two boys on the Main Line and shut her namesake restaurant in Radnor last summer, not only has bought a condo in Rittenhouse Square, but she will work there, too.
Foo and her son Gabriel expect to open SUGA - a portmanteau of "Susanna" and "Gabriel" - in the next two weeks at 1720 Sansom St. It is three blocks from the site of Susanna Foo, the Walnut Street restaurant that trailblazed with a fusion of French and Chinese cuisine before she sold the building in 2009, a year before her husband, E-Hsin, died from a degenerative brain disease.
At SUGA, on the former longtime site of Genji, Eimer Design opted for clean lines and blond woods, a far more modern aesthetic than Susanna Foo's white-tablecloth reserve. A mural of a woman in the dress of Mongolia - Susanna Foo's homeland - dominates the front bar area. A spiral staircase links two dining rooms on the first level with two rooms on the second.
A bar will serve updated versions of classic craft cocktails, especially the goofy old-timers like the mai tai, but made with fresh juices.
That is all well and good, but why, at age 72, go back into the restaurant business?
"Two reasons," Foo said. "One is Gabriel. He wants to open a restaurant." Gabe Foo, 45, gave up his medical practice in 2006 to help his parents run first the Walnut Street restaurant and then the Radnor offshoot. (His younger brother, Jimmy, runs a hedge fund.)
Although Gabriel Foo said he grew up learning "a little bit of everything" as the son of restaurateurs, "I had no desire to go into the business. I saw how hard my parents worked. If they went to the market at 9 o'clock in the morning, you don't get home till 11 o'clock at night. Then I went to medical school, and I worked that hard. Those are intern hours."
Gabriel Foo said his parents' 2003 opening of Suilan at the Borgata in Atlantic City "seemed so exciting, it reawakened the passion for food inside of me," as did a family dinner before Jimmy Foo's 2005 wedding at the Slanted Door, the Vietnamese destination in San Francisco.
The second reason is one of unfinished business. "I think I have more to do," Susanna Foo said. "I feel like there's a need for modern Chinese cuisine. I had been going back to China once or twice a year, and I see what they're doing."
As an example of "modern" Chinese food, Foo mentioned the dish mapo tofu. Rather than cube it and serve in hot oil, "I'm making a sauce French-style with onions, garlic, peppers, ginger, and spice. It's not greasy."
Pork belly, which has to be top-quality, will be cooked sous vide, a Western technique.
SUGA's food will be more sophisticated than that of Susanna Foo Gourmet Kitchen in Radnor, Susanna Foo said. "The food in Radnor was much different because the clientele was more local - average families with kids. They always want salmon or chicken. Here, I can do more."
Some dishes from the original Susanna Foo on Walnut Street are on the menu, including kung pao chicken and Mongolian lamb.
She had toyed with not serving crispy prawns.
"My accountant said, 'No, no, no. If you take that out, I won't be your accountant,' " she said.
Foo is steeping executive sous chef Clara Park in her ideas. Park, the hard-charging opening chef at SouthGate, a Korean bar-restaurant nearby, is menu-testing in Foo's condo kitchen, using ingredients sourced to local purveyors they meet at the farmers' market on Rittenhouse Square.
Foo said she expected to work on the line daily for at least three months. "My doctor just told me I'm 20 years younger than my age," she said. "I can work 14, 15 hours a day. Not 16, like I used to."
OPENING MENUS FOR SUGA