Taste Review: Foo’s in the Kitchen
But Susanna Foo’s new Gourmet Kitchen has none of the polish that has been the chef’s signature.
The year 2006 was a rocky one for Susanna Foo. Her new Susanna Foo Gourmet Kitchen in Radnor, scheduled to open early in the year, was stalled by construction delays until late October. Her elegant Atlantic City restaurant, Suilan, closed after just three years in business at the Borgata. Then there was her much-publicized run-in with a parking officer outside Foo’s Walnut Street establishment. The chef is on probation, and has agreed to perform community service. And now Foo is concentrating on casual Gourmet Kitchen.
This long-planned project aims at the Main Line’s growing number of affluent young families. Though the food is familiar — many dishes are repeated verbatim from Walnut Street and Atlantic City — the ambience is a jolting departure from the calm cocoons that are a Foo signature. Gourmet Kitchen has a shiny stainless steel open kitchen, no tablecloths, horrible acoustics, and three television monitors that simultaneously show Chinese movies, Sixers games and cable TV lifestyle shows on silent screens. An even larger TV above the bar mesmerizes. This visual cacophony is amplified by the restaurant’s ability to seat up to 200 people. When it’s nearly full, as it was on all my review visits, the effect is more exhausting than energizing. The staff struggles to keep pace with the eager early crowds, ultimately leaving water glasses unfilled and coffee forgotten.
At the eye of the storm is Foo, who stands near the kitchen and scrutinizes every plate en route to customers. The dishes look good, but looks can be deceiving: She couldn’t have known that the roasted salmon with mashed potatoes was nearly cold when it came to our table. Nor did her careful attention prevent us from receiving three incorrect orders, mistakes that occurred because the noisy dining room makes it impossible to hear clearly. The restaurant was in a transitional phase as we went to press, with Foo contemplating staff changes as well as an expanded menu with more of the small-plate dishes that at first were available only on the bar menu.
Appetizers are superior to the main courses. The standouts in this group are the chopped Asian salad, with wasabi-accented honey-mustard vinaigrette, a bounty of colorful cabbages, arugula, fried tofu and edamame; and the steamed mussels in coconut-lemongrass broth, a recipe that Foo brought home from a trip to Thailand, served with miniature Chinese buns for dipping. The meat and seafood versions of the feather-light steamed dumplings are more flavorful than the vegetable version. A tuna-themed sashimi platter, portioned for two or three people, brought maki rolls with tuna and cucumber, peppery tuna tartare topped with black tobiko, rare-centered seared tuna, and opulent finger-length cuts of raw tuna. Panko-crusted crabcakes, served with sun-dried tomato sauce, are molded from a luxurious mixture of shrimp mousse and lump crabmeat.
The entrée group needs an infusion of imagination, because we’ve seen most of these dishes before. The Mongolian lamb with Chinese eggplant, black beans and scallions is as tender as ever, heated up a notch with cooked poblano and raw jalapeño peppers. Giant shrimp with puffy tempura jackets and sweet orange sauce will appeal to children and less adventurous diners, as will the honey-glazed chicken with walnuts. Steer clear of the rigatoni with duck confit and spicy tomato sauce, a dish with no sense of nationality, and the crispy duck, which was not quite crisp. Best is the enormous, utterly tender beef short rib braised in Shaoxing wine with soy sauce and ginger, paired with roasted root vegetables, baby bok choy, and a slice of firm polenta made with coconut milk. Serving spoons should be provided for the sharing-size platters.
Foo’s restaurants have always offered well-made desserts. Pastry chef Dana Russo, who has worked at Lacroix, Bianca and Georges’, rises to the task with a bistro-worthy apple tart, silky coconut crème brûlée, airy ginger panna cotta, and a lovely chocolate banana tart. The chocolate sampler that sprawls across a red-rimmed rectangular glass plate is a fetching parade of small bites: white and milk truffles, multi-layered opera cake, espresso chocolate mousse, and warm chocolate cake, all good enough to distract you momentarily from The Simpsons on the bar TV.
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