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EPICURE: Review of Susanna Foo’s in Radnor

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Susanna, Too
Solid menu, slick packaging and few surprises at the new Foo’s.

THE SCENE: It all feels a little too suburban—trendy upscale restaurants showing up in corporate centers where ladies can lunch, men can cut deals and vice versa. But if we’re going to have it, then we should be grateful for some pretty fine packaging.

At once edgy and tailored, Susanna Foo’s new Radnor digs definitely deliver visually. Designed by Karen Daroff of Daroff Designs in Philadelphia, the spacious bar and dining room are an explosion of natural and man-made elements strategically placed and balanced in true Feng Shui form—black painted bamboo screens; imported silk pillows, including a fabulous one-piece bolster that runs the length of the gold leather banquette in the bar; wood floors; “rain”-kissed Plexiglas cocktail tables; creamy white textured faux leather barstools; a black granite bar top; angular slate (from Australia) walls reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright; teak screening; crimson patterned drum chandeliers; the bamboo-emulating, crystal-covered chains that separate the hostess station from the bar area. The entire look is tied together with an elegant color scheme of golds, blacks and creams.

 
Two C-shaped gongs (pictured above left) add a whimsical component (you might be surprised to hear that Foo lets young diners give them a whack), and there is an immaculate show kitchen (pictured above right). The bank of LCD TVs overlooking the dining room seem out of place—but apparently they were a huge hit during the game that knocked Dallas out of the playoffs (the restaurant deserves props for being down with patrons expressing their joy). Their real purpose, though, is to enhance viewing for cooking demonstrations by Foo and celebrity chefs.

But the real gems are the two triangular courtyards to the rear of the dining room—fitting for a woman who’d be a gardener if she weren’t chef. They make it all too easy to conjure up the potential magic of dining al fresco. Let’s hope guests don’t get into fisticuffs over what are sure to become the most coveted seats in the house; groups will have fun sitting at the larger round tables fitted with lazy Susans.

The ladies’ restroom also is notable, with its stainless-steel stalls, red glass tile backsplash, gold wallpaper, stylish red basins and industrial, upscale office-complex feel.

THE FOOD: Foo’s classic Chinese dishes are artistically rendered with precision preparation and an emphasis on farm-fresh ingredients handpicked at her favorite Philly market. (All seafood comes from “Tony in New Jersey,” she says.) These days, Foo is focused on eating healthier, so there’s lots of fish and vegetable dishes on the menu. Sauces are light, never masking the innate characteristics of the main ingredients.

From the décor to the cuisine, Foo (pictured above) is evolving into a champion of all things natural and non-toxic. To punctuate this point, she had a water-softening and purification system put in so tap water can be used in every stage of preparation. All sauces are made from scratch with minimal sugar, and the only thing stopping her from bringing in more organic specialty items is the risk of higher prices. (Foo has been in the business too long not to know where to draw the line.)

The dumpling sampler features an assortment of pan-fried lamb, pork, shrimp, chicken and wild mushroom, and spinach-filled vegetable dumplings. The lamb and pork were the tastiest of the bunch, and the steamed spinach and sun-dried tomato sauce accompanying the shrimp dumplings beat out the rest of the sauces.

Sadly, the vegetable dumplings were mushy and lifeless. Generally, the condiments were meek; a traditional soy-rice, wine-based dipping sauce would have added just the right saltiness and enhanced the subtle combinations of flavors and textures. The dumplings had a pleasant chewiness to them, the slightly crispy skins contrasting nicely with their creamy fillings.

The panko-crusted crab cakes came to the table as three croquette-shaped balls of sweet, moist meat—more lump than backfin—with no filler. Served with a piquant sauce, they were a terrific blend of crunchy-soft and tangy-sweet. Sushi fans should be happy with the selection and quality at Foo’s. The Big-Eye (Ahi) tuna sashimi platter came with a spicy tuna roll, tuna sashimi, sushi and tartar. Perfect for two, the blood red tuna was supple and robust. The spicy salmon and tuna maki were also memorable, with the same melt-in-your-mouth Ahi and a thin layer of salmon that dissolved on contact.

Mandarin crispy shrimp features a more-than-satisfying portion of six beefy prawns nestled alongside crispy potatoes, broccoli and cauliflower. Also notable were the sautéed diver scallops and tiger prawn with ginger, scallions and Kung Pao sauce. But the show-stopper was the Jamison lamb. It was remarkably tender and mild—almost sweet—in flavor.

I also loved the pork-fried rice—fresh-tasting and chock full of shredded pork, scrambled egg, peas and other tidbits from the garden. The seafood mix—shrimp, salmon and calamari—is definitely on my “must try” list next time around.

The wine list features 25 whites and 29 reds. With her unyielding intolerance for anything that might mask the taste of the food, Foo likely will maintain a strong hand when it comes to selecting wines that won’t overshadow or weigh down the nuances in her cooking.

THE EXPERIENCE: Packaging it’s got; groove it doesn’t (hip background music notwithstanding). At times, the atmosphere at Foo’s Noodle House feels sterile, the staff comes off standoffish and the service can be impersonal. On our second visit, it seemed we were more of an annoyance than welcome guests. There was a manageable crowd and two bartenders, but capturing their attention took a bit of time—and when we did, we were greeted with a bit of attitude. We tried to order a Saketini, but they only had a pre-mixed version; if I wanted one from scratch, they said it would cost $30 or so. Strangely, they were out of Ketel One, but we later learned that it’s the vodka of choice for Susanna Foo’s patrons and that inventory amounts weren’t quite worked out.

Maybe it was a bad night, but all around, service was slow and chilly. We had questions for the waiter, but his knowledge of the menu was barebones.

Our third visit, we sat at the bar, a space that wants to be inviting but hasn’t quite figured out how to be. Still, I wanted to test it out to see if it had that hunker-down-and-stay-for-a-few-hours charm conveyed in the sink-down banquette and supple leather bar stools. It was work, but after a half hour or so, the frostiness of the bartenders dissipated. Prior to that, it was tough to develop any emotional attachment to the place.

THE SKINNY: It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the missing ingredient is here, but the wow factor at the new Foo’s is on simmer. Foo has got enough experience and star power to “bring it,” but what we’re getting so far is more of the same—just in prettier wrapping.

Anticipation can be a double-edged sword: This really isn’t the simple, family-friendly, casual dumpling house we anticipated, nor is it a real departure from Foo’s other endeavors. The décor is redolent of Suilan (R.I.P.), and the formal, reserved atmosphere feels like Chinese Kitchen.

Not that more of the same is really such a bad thing. There’s much to be said for consistency. But this seems like a missed opportunity for Foo to forge her latest venture into something more innovative—one that has the potential to take diners on an exotic culinary adventure.

I can’t be the only Foo follower who’s eager to see what else she has in her spice rack. With the exception of the Wuxi-style braised beef short ribs with coconut polenta, the menu falls short of awe-inspiring.

Still, while hardly ground-breaking, the food is good. It’s hard to dismiss fresh, premium ingredients and slant toward slow cooking (if you really can say that about wok-prepared foods). And for the money, most of the portions are more than satisfactory.

General manager Jason Wagner admits the pre-opening hype was misleading, and that “family style” referred more to the sharing of dishes than the prospect of rolling in with a minivan full of kids. Families are coming in—predominantly between 5 and 7 p.m.—and Foo readily acknowledges her love of children.

We’ll see how things shake out, but my first impression is that the décor and menu are too sophisticated (and pricey) for younger gourmands. We adults need our places to eat, too—so I’m really not complaining. And besides, if you want your kids to expand their culinary horizons, Susanna Foo’s Noodle House does offer takeout.
 


DETAILS:
Susanna Foo’s Noodle House
Location: 555 East Lancaster Ave., Radnor; (610) 688-8808, susannafoo.com
Cuisine: Asian fusion
Prices: $21-$30
Attire: Business casual
Atmosphere: From subdued to crowded and loud.
Hours: Mon.-Thurs. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri. 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m., Sat. noon-11 p.m., Sun. 4-9 p.m.
Extras: Free valet parking, chef’s table, happy hour, patio/outdoor dining, private room, takeout.

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