First Look: SuGa
Wander into SuGa for a late lunch and you might be joined by Sinatra crooning through My Way, then Strangers in the Night, and then My Way, again, this time recorded a few decades later. He’s there each day from 3:00 until 4:00, a request by Susanna Foo herself, an hour of big band standards to get through the afternoon lull.
The thing about Sinatra is that he’s a classic. Maybe his songs are overwrought, worn out by too many cheap, not as good versions in elevators and on hold, but the real deal is still impressive–one rich baritone note after another. In a way, it’s something that he and Susanna Foo have in common. Foo, a veteran chef, is no longer the newest hot-shot in town, but she’s still in the kitchen long after many of her contemporaries have retired, still putting up the kind of Asian-fusion plates that, especially in Philadelphia, taught people to appreciate their flavors to begin with.
Susanna Foo’s return to Center City has been hotly anticipated ever since it was announced that she and son Gabriel were to open SuGa on Sansom Street. The lauded chef and veteran restaurateur has swaggered back into town, immediately offering both lunch and dinner, with a limited bar menu in between and, as of this weekend, brunch, too. On the menu? Foo’s trademark take that combines French techniques and Chinese flavors. While her namesake restaurant, Susannah Foo, in Radnor, feels distinctively, particularly Chinese at its foundation, at SuGa, so far, Foo seems to be playing against the limits of what that identity means.
For now, expect the bones of the flavors that Foo is known for, as well as some wildcards thrown in. One appetizer, for example, is fat spears of blanched asparagus and funny little twirled fingerling potatoes, a poached egg, carrots, banuyls vinaigrette, and a tuft of microgreens. French? Definitely. But precisely nothing about it reads as remotely Asian. These springy flavors appear again on an entree of cod, crusted with miso and ginger, but missing any of the lacquered, umami richness one might expect from such a dish. Again are the carrots, this time atop gingered butternut squash puree and a nugget of steamed swiss chard leaves.
Plenty of Foo’s greatest hits are available: crispy curried chicken dumplings with a cilantro chili yogurt sauce; vegetable dumplings filled with shiitake mushrooms, spinach, and mung bean noodles, all topped with a crisped crown of parmesan cheese’ and a double-decker scallion pancake filled with egg. Beside these, other standards that helped Foo make her mark, long before Asian-fusion was a thing. Kung pao chicken with mushroom, red pepper, peanuts and delicate curls of scallion; or tender strips of shaking beef. In place of Radnor’s Peking duck with sweet potato souffleé, star anise, and rhubarb, a tea-smoked duck breast with farro, roasted squash, matitake mushrooms, and cauliflower.
On this first visit, some of the flavors lacked conviction. Neither the kung pao chicken nor the shaking beef was remotely spicy—which made me long to try the ma po tofu and the Shangxi cat ear pasta with lamb ragu, both listed a s “very spicy” on the menu—and the miso-crusted cod was downright boring. One accompaniment to the entree dishes, Nishiki brown rice, studded with lentils and peas, is available on it’s own, with added bits of egg white and kale. It’s a sad, wholesome alternative to spicy three pork fried rice with bacon and Chinese sausage, or the eight treasure sticky rice with three kinds of mushrooms, shrimp, sausage, and—wildcard!—truffle, a potentially strange (but possibly delicious) mash up of mushroom fried rice and the flavors of a mushroom risotto.
Despite the overlap between menus for the bar, lunch, dinner, and brunch, it would take even a dedicated diner time to work through this big, bold statement of what Foo, and SuGa, will be in this newest incarnation. On visit number two I know I’ll save room for a happy hour snack of popcorn pork ravioli (available in Radnor only as part of the children’s menu! Score!), and then a dinner of Chinese eggplant with shishito pepper, sesame chicken ramen with cucumber and peanuts, Szechwan chili prawns with coconut couscous, and, if I can stomach it, another individual Valhrona chocolate mousse cake with vanilla creme anglaise and Reanimator ice cream.
It’s true that some of these plates feel like throwbacks. But if we can learn something from Ole’ Blue Eyes, it’s that there’s not much difference between a throwback and a classic. At SuGa, Foo is still very much at the helm of what her legacy will be.