Future Imperfect: SuGa Reviewed
I love the smell of SuGa. The dim warmth of it. The banquette tables that run along the wall opposite the bar, in the front of the narrow, shotgun space in the middle of Center City. I love the weird, blobby lights that hang down, casting spotlights onto those tables. There’s a drama there that I can appreciate. A sense of controlling the environment.
There’s a sheen to everything at SuGa of newness and polish and efficiency. It’s a new restaurant (not even quite three months old yet) that operates like there are 20-year grooves cut into the floor. Everything is on rails, running with a precision that would make German train engineers jealous. This place represents the culmination of decades of experience—of Susanna Foo’s return to Center City (where she got famous, where she made her name) after closing her namesake Walnut Street restaurant in 2009 and its Radnor offshoot last summer. A veteran returning to the trenches, Foo is backed up by her son Gabriel on the floor (he grew up in the restaurant industry, went to medical school, but then found his way back to restaurants again) and sous chefs Clara Park (who opened SuGa with Foo, then left) and Chris Dougherty (who stepped up when Park left) in the kitchen. There are no amateur mistakes at SuGa. Nothing happens without a reason.
Which is why, on my first time through, I just don’t understand the tomatoes.
They’re sitting right there on my plate of dumplings—split cherry tomatoes, looking just as red and ripe and perfect as chemistry and forced growth cycles can make out-of-season fruit appear. And that right there is weird enough. Tomatoes and Chinese food aren’t friends. It’s rare that you see the two of them hanging out together.
And yet here they are.
I eat them, sure. Well, half of them, anyway, because they’re pretty and red and feel spring-ish even if they don’t have the powerful sweetness of summer tomatoes. And there is nothing—literally nothing—in them that makes them belong on this plate. The dumplings themselves are good—big, thin-skinned, densely packed with chunks of shrimp. The micro pea shoots on top don’t feel completely out of place. The edamame puree at least shares a hemisphere and some pan-Asian culinary solidarity with the tidily crimped Chinese dumplings. But the cherry tomatoes? The only thing I can figure (in the moment) is that they’ve been put on the plate for color, though it’s not like Chinese cuisine is lacking in redness. I’m wrong, but that’s what I was thinking then.
That first time in Susanna Foo’s dining room, it was lunch, so I also had a plate of the tongpo pork belly bao buns. They were terrible—the pork belly so dry it was almost crumbly, the caramelized onions nearly tasteless. But the weirdest thing?
The bao had tomatoes in them, too.
There was a time when Susanna Foo (the restaurant) was one of the hottest destinations in the city, when Susanna Foo (the person) was rewiring the brains of Philadelphia gastronauts who were just wrapping their heads around the notions of Chinese as an upscale cuisine and Asian fusion as a thing. She made kung pao chicken famous in Philly, turning it into something she owned the way Han Dynasty does dan dan noodles or Sweetgreen does vaguely disappointing salads. And while, reading that sentence now, you might think no one should be lauded for making kung pao chicken famous, you’re wrong. Foo pioneered French-Asian fusion and refined Chinese food at a time when every other chef of note in the city was ignoring pretty much everything in the world east of Venice and Strasbourg. The problem is, she’s still doing the same thing today.
The kung pao chicken is on the menu again at SuGa. As is the Mongolian lamb with leek and eggplant, and the Szechuan-style chili prawns over coconut couscous with bok choy, which had such a loyal following that during my time in SuGa’s dining room, I watched several different people call Susanna or Gabriel over to their tables to tell them how, back in the day, they used to eat it once a week. How they would come into the city on special occasions just to order it.
As if this isn’t enough, every time I was seated in the dining room at SuGa, there was someone asking about some other dish from back in the old days and whether Susanna (who was there every time, too) would still cook it now and then. No lie, EVERY time. They asked for ginger dumplings and the seared foie gras and other dishes that I didn’t recognize. And considering that this happened on three different occasions (and twice during one lunch), I have to figure it happens constantly. Half of a server’s job while working the floor at SuGa is offering grief counseling for bereft diners missing the one plate that defined Susanna Foo for them back when kung pao chicken was the hottest thing on Walnut Street.
And while I can certainly understand the lure of the familiar, on the floor at SuGa I was, again, dumbfounded. I ordered the kung pao. Waited anxiously for it to arrive, thinking that maybe (somehow), it was going to be some remarkable, amazing departure from the kung pao I’ve been eating my entire life. But it wasn’t. It was prettier, certainly, than the stuff I get in the cardboard takeout box from the really good Chinese place down the street from my house. It was shiny, with its high-gloss sweet-hot sauce, and colorful, too—the chicken and red peppers, mushrooms and pea pods all mounded up in the center of a plain white plate, displayed gloriously under the soft spotlight at the center of my table. Everything about it was executed with a flawless technical precision.
But it was still just kung pao chicken. Sitting there eating it, I felt like I’d gone to someone’s house to have cheeseburgers for dinner and they’d laid a Big Mac down in front of me. They’ve got the grill on, they’re wearing a KISS THE COOK apron, there are dishes in the sink, but what I’m eating is still just a Big Mac. Not fake, exactly, but still somehow less than what I was hoping for.
The Mongolian lamb went through a dozen iterations during Susanna Foo’s time on Walnut Street. At SuGa, it’s a memento mori of better days. And the prawns? Same thing, only with a spike of chili heat. But that’s not the entirety of SuGa’s menu. Asian ingredients, French technique and showroom-beautiful, museum-grade replicas of dinners eaten by well-heeled Philadelphians in 1987 are one thing, but there’s another inspiration at play here, too. Something odder and newer that I didn’t catch on my first turn through the dining room and missed completely on my second.
Where, at one time, Foo was known as one of the innovators of Asian fusion cuisine, it seems as though now—at this time and in this place—she isn’t solely relying on old favorites, but is also flirting around the edges of something different, newer, certainly more daring than plating 20-year-old greatest hits for former regulars. It’s one of those things you don’t notice until you notice and then can’t not notice—a wild strain of invention threaded through every section of the menu. They’re doing Italian-Asian fusion.
Smoked tofu dumplings with mung bean noodles crusted in parmesan. Crab-stuffed whole branzino with shrimp mousse and a tomato-tamarind sauce. Tiny little pork and corn ravioli, crisp-skinned from the fryer, cooked in brown butter and sprinkled with cheese. All of a sudden, those tomatoes from earlier make a lot more sense.
Or, actually, they still don’t. Not yet. Because this vision of a unified Marco Polo Chinese/Venetian cuisine is too young, too experimental (at this stage), to hang together with the same snap-tight comfort that French-Asian did after years of having the two culinary traditions rammed into each other to see what stuck.
Those little popcorn pork ravioli are delicious—a whole bowl of them like the perfect snack food, sweet and savory, golden-brown and crisp from the fryer and topped with a scattering of scallions. The branzino is unbalanced (too French to be Italian, too Italian to be Asian, not Asian enough that most people would notice), and a dull, bluntly flavored bowl of Shaxi cat-ear pasta in a lamb ragu with undercooked cubes of Yukon Gold potatoes is just a mess—the cup-shaped pasta nicely al dente, but the competing flavors of the tomatoes, cubed lamb, parmesan and a heatless chili-bean sauce about as elegant as a drunken street fight.
And Italian isn’t the only avenue Foo is exploring. The old kitchen always had a view of Asian cuisine that was wider than just Shanghai and Canton with a Parisian gloss. But today, SuGa does a Thai bouillabaisse scented with kaffir lime and lemongrass, and an Indian detour in a plate of curried chicken dumplings with cilantro-chili yogurt, and a flashback to 1980s New Americanism with goat cheese wontons accompanied by heirloom beets with walnut and arugula, and some tuna tacos with avocado and chili-soy glaze that carry the flag for the Latino-Asian fusion craze that followed French-Asian before both became a mild, dated embarrassment to all involved, like being the last guy on the block still rocking a Members Only jacket and parachute pants.
Somewhere amid all these passport stamps, I believe there’s probably a menu for SuGa that works. It just isn’t the one that’s being offered right now. The global fusion is distracting, the Italian influences aren’t thought through or smartly paired, and the spread of Foo’s greatest-hits plates is too blunted by age and inevitable copycat-ism to matter to anyone without a serious soft spot for Susanna Foo’s best years. It’s a menu that’s trying to look wistfully backward and forward into an uncertain tomorrow at the same time. And while this friction between past and future was always what made fusion cuisine exciting, it was also the biggest risk that any chef took when trying to blaze a trail: What if no one was willing to follow?
She pulled it off once, and got famous for doing so. But with SuGa, I’m not entirely sure Susanna Foo knows where she’s going.
1 star – Come if there are no other options