Susanna Foo won't walk past 1512 Walnut St. anymore. It was the scene of her greatest glories - and also her biggest mistake. That is why it's now a Chipotle.
"I feel like I pulled out my roots," she said of the 2009 decision to sell her eponymous restaurant there, the elegant, lantern-lit palace of elevated Chinese cuisine where for 20 years she pioneered the Asian fusion movement, became one of Philly's first nationally known celeb chefs, helped launch Restaurant Row, and earned my very first four-bell rating, back in 1998.
She had good reasons to sell: a husband in failing health, a valuable piece of real estate, and another restaurant in Radnor much closer to home. But timing and audience are everything, and Foo's suburban venture never resonated quite like her original city hit, despite a solid nine-year run. "I was very depressed for five years after [selling]," she conceded.
And so SUGA, the three-month-old Sansom Street restaurant she launched with son Gabriel - the name's a mash-up of theirs - is an especially bold new chapter for the 72-year-old chef.
I wish I could declare it an unqualified and triumphant return. The result is more mixed. To be tempered undoubtedly by the lofty expectations of Foo's own history.
And there are definitely moments - actually more than a few - when I'm reminded of her unique talents for combining tradition and innovation. Delicately steamed shrimp dumplings pose over a vivid green edamame puree topped with sweet peas and spicy shaved radish rounds that amp the freshness of the shellfish stuffing. Sublimely tender Tongpo pork belly basks in the star anise savor of its red cooking method and the soft sweetness of orange chunks of butternut squash. A head-turning tray cradling crispy tacos, their shells cleverly made from fried wonton skins, arrives topped with diced sushi tuna that glows rubylike beneath a gloss of ginger and soy.
There are a number of other moments, however, that serve to remind just how difficult it is to start anew, working 12-hour days when most chefs her age are collecting discounts with their AARP cards. There are the challenges of retraining a whole new staff (and losing one of her lead cooks after just a month), of drawing guests to a broodingly dark but sleekly handsome space on a somewhat quiet stretch of Sansom Street.
And, most important, Foo must somehow reckon the bigger forces of a vastly changed dining landscape, where much of the audience is too young to remember Walnut Street before their carnitas burrito bowls - let alone the long-lost glories of her "hundred corner" crab cake. So much has transpired since she left Center City, from the rise of Han Dynasty's Sichuan spice to Chinatown's stunningly diverse evolution, and a general trend away from fusion foods to an embrace of refined authenticity, that some of the ideas here feel quaintly outdated.
How strange is it to encounter some beautiful chili-glazed prawns set around a mound of . . . coconut couscous? Or some tender shreds of sweet and spicy Mandarin pork served, not with fresh moo shu pancakes, but warm "corn pancakes" (a.k.a. tortillas)?
Such cross-cultural substitutions were the mother of invention in the late '80s, when genuine ingredients were scarce and Foo began crafting a novel vision for modern Chinese cuisine. But these days, when there are ateliers in Chinatown whirling hand-spun noodles and turning out magical soup dumplings by the dozens and any Italian restaurant worth its semolina is making its pasta in-house, it seems a little too easy just to substitute boxed orecchiette for the similar "cat ear" pasta Foo grew up with in Inner Mongolia.
Of course, it helps that the hearty lamb stew smothering that pasta is uniquely delicious, flickering with Sichuan peppercorn spice and bean paste and Shaoxing wine that gives it the taste of her father's home in Shanxi.
Good distinctive flavors that showcase prime ingredients are generally a fair reward to counterbalance the occasional and unexpected flaws. Little spring rolls are practically bursting with sweet lobster. A huge head-on branzino is deboned and stuffed with sweet crab in shrimp mousse and then set over a light tamarind sauce aromatic with lemongrass.
Tender Pennsylvania Jamison Farm lamb sautéed Mongolian-style with spicy fermented black bean sauce, leeks, and Chinese eggplants is a classic I'm glad to have back in Center City. Cubes of tender "shaking beef," in its exotic Viet-style glaze, is another Foo standard that reappears in good shape. So does the elegant kung pao, its chicken meat silken from a long marinade in whipped egg whites and vodka. Some delicately crisped wontons filled fusion-style with goat cheese matched with a familiar New American pairing of sweet beets and snappy walnuts.
I appreciated such dishes for their artful balance of flavors and precision, even if they no longer qualify as especially innovative. But on occasion, some technical flaws held these dishes back. Foo's dumpling sampler is a wonderful showcase for a variety of flavors, from curried chicken to sweet shrimp, earthy lamb, and truffled mushrooms. But they were also shining with grease. A shrimp wonton soup, which should be an easy slam-dunk, was actually terrible - its shellfish broth lukewarm and seemingly unseasoned. The tea-smoked duck, another Foo standard I've loved in the past, was cooked with such little finesse, its smoke was harsh and ashy.
SUGA's kitchen quality control clearly still has some hiccups. I far preferred the crackly five-spiced skin of the unsmoked Peking duck, a meltingly soft breast that came fanned beside brightly dressed frisee and sweet-poached Fuji apples for a satisfying salad at lunch, which, at $17 for a hearty portion, was a very fair value. I didn't always feel that way at dinner, where a Thai curried bowl of sautéed scallops with a couple of shrimp and mussels was underwhelming for $33.
For that matter, the entire 80-seat restaurant shows better by day. The Sansom Street lunch crowd brings the lively energy of business diners. And the caress of sunlight reveals just how appealing this transformation of the former Genji really is, a long series of small rooms laced with wood slats, dark grays, and deep teal tones that brighten only toward the front windows, near the mural of a young woman who peeks out from inside a furry Mongolian hoodie with a gaze more mystery than mirth.
The service staff, at least, approaches its task with an outgoing nature and good cheer, though with varying levels of polish. On my first visit, the lingering smell of someone's cigarette break and a chain-restaurant-style unsolicited list of recommended "menu best-sellers" was a turnoff. At a return meal, our server was sharp enough to note without my saying anything that I was not thrilled with my cocktail (none of them, in fact) and insisted on removing it from the bill. The wine list, unlike the standout cellar from the old Susanna Foo, is unexciting.
The best things to drink here, it turns out, are the exceptional whole-leaf teas that Foo brought back from her frequent travels to China. I loved the lightness, earthy oxidation, and texture of the dong ding jade oolong from landlocked Nantou County in Taiwan. But if you're spooning through the warm caramel of an upside-down pineapple cake, a creamy ginger panna cotta, or a bowl of tapioca in coconut milk with exotic fruits for dessert, there's nothing quite so pretty as watching a chrysanthemum flower bloom inside a clear glass pot set over a tea light.
It's such an elegant and fragrant moment in the meal, evocative of the homeland that inspired Susanna Foo to become a culinary trailblazer. Now that she's returned to Center City, where it all began, her encore can perhaps use a little more steeping time to reach the full potential expected of its legacy. Ideally, in this space and era, SUGA will evolve to forge an identity of its own.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Bar Hygge in Fairmount.
SUGA (two bells out of four)
1720 Sansom St., 215-717-8968; sugabyfoo.com
Asian-fusion pioneer Susanna Foo has returned to Center City in collaboration with son Gabriel for a sleek and broodingly dark Sansom Street restaurant that's more intimate - also noisier and less polished - than the eponymous landmark on nearby Walnut Street that she closed years ago. Though it hasn't been quite the triumphant revival I was hoping for, due both to evolution in our dining scene and some uncharacteristic flaws in food and service, there are still more than enough qualities here - especially with the chef's classic dishes, special teas, and a brighter lunch vibe - to merit a visit.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Dumpling sampler; shrimp dumplings; popcorn pork dumplings; lobster spring roll; tuna taco; goat cheese wonton; Tongpo pork belly; Peking duck salad; chili prawns; kung pao chicken; shaking beef; Mongolian lamb; stuffed branzino; spicy Shanxi cat ear pasta with lamb; eight treasure sticky rice; pineapple upside down cake; ginger panna cotta.
DRINKS Once a surprising strength at the original Susanna Foo, SUGA's wine list is small and relatively unexciting (especially by the glass) unless you're willing to splurge on a bottle of Hungarian dry furmint, Sancerre, or Etude pinot noir. The cocktails aim for fun Asian twists on classic ideas but lack much harmony and finesse. The best drink options are actually the elegant glass pots of whole-leaf teas Foo has imported from China.
WEEKEND NOISE Lots of hard surfaces bring noise into the low-90 decibels, especially in the smaller back rooms. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less).
IF YOU GO Lunch Monday through Friday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; Dinner Sunday through Thursday, 5-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, until midnight. Brunch Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Dinner entrées, $17-$37.
All major cards.
Reservations highly recommended.