On the Side: Susanna Foo, moving on

Susanna Foo by the distinctive windows looking out on Walnut Street. A final dinner Saturday for 200 emotional customers put a period to 22 years there, serving groundbreaking Chinese-French fusion fare.
Susanna Foo by the distinctive windows looking out on Walnut Street. A final dinner Saturday for 200 emotional customers put a period to 22 years there, serving groundbreaking Chinese-French fusion fare. (Tony Fitts)

Family, a suburban restaurant, her garden all need her. But closing the landmark Walnut Street dining room is not as simple as turning a key.

Posted: June 18, 2009

In one breath, Susanna Foo explains that she is leaving these elegant digs on Walnut Street, closing her eponymous landmark of a dining room - the wellspring of her groundbreaking style of French-Chinese fusion - because she needs to "simplify."

She is vigorous still, at 65. But she was stressed from splitting herself - sometimes it almost seemed literally - between the Center City kitchen and her sleeker, newer (since 2006) Radnor restaurant, which will remain open.

There's another reason to stay closer to her Main Line home: Her husband's health is not what it once was; a worrisome unsteadiness has crept into his gait.

She has two toddler grandchildren, too, now living closer to her one-acre spread in Radnor Township (a soothing, 15-minute walk down a wooded trail to Susanna Foo Gourmet Kitchen).

And there is, of course - and she dwells on this - her garden, festooned with white and golden and red roses and lilies, their needs requiring early-morning attention.

One recent day she walked through the garden with her 3-year-old granddaughter, encountering a nest of baby birds, beaks open wide, and branches pink with cherry blossoms, and came to a pond teeming with dark shapes.

"Nye-nye," the little girl asked, using the Chinese endearment for grandmother, "what kind of fish are they?"

"They are tadpoles."

"Nye-nye, what is a tadpole?

"It is going to be a frog."

"Nye-nye, what is a frog?"

Susanna Foo beams, a slow, broad, silent smile.

So, yes, she says, it makes sense for her to downshift, to close (as Susanna Foo, the dining room, did last Saturday evening, 200 sentimental customers dining on lobster in vodka-infused sauce and tea-smoked duck; tears staining the napkins and menus).

But it was admittedly not an easy thing, dismantling 22 years of history. She could not sign the papers to sell the building at first, her stomach churning, she says, until her sons gently told her it was OK - it was the right thing to do: The bricks are said to be worth more than $4 million more today than when the Foos bought the place, for $750,000, in 1991.

Oy, the daunting immensity of just emptying it out - hauling out the files and the books, the painted Chinese plates that patrons keep wanting to buy, the silky balloon of a lantern that hovers like a big ivory moon over the intimate Empress Room.

But in the next breath, Susanna Foo ponders more projects - a famous chef's dinner, maybe this fall? A modest dumpling and noodle house?

Simplifying can be complicated business.

It is two days before lights out, and Susanna Foo is sipping a crisp white wine (Shoofly, Buzz Cut 2007, an Australian blend) in the restaurant waiting lounge, looking out the tall, arched windows onto Walnut Street at 15th.

An old customer, looking in, catches a glimpse, reacting - palms cupped to her face - as if she'd just seen Emeril.

Foo had a sizzling run here, back when Restaurant Row was ascendant. That was before Le Bec-Fin would have dreamed of serving a $15.23 Express Lunch burger to ride out the current hard times: In January, it wasn't rare for Susanna Foo to serve just 20 dinners, total.

She added a halfhearted take-out and delivery service. One day her pastry chef delivered the lunches to our office.

In this very space where we are sitting, at the front of the house, as they say, Foo remembers there was a piano to one side when she was thinking of moving in. And "a fake steak," which is to say a lifelike model of one. And a violin, the signature of Arthur's Steak House (and for its last year, Arturo's), which in the '80s, sensing that fatty slabs of red meat were the wave of the past, tried belatedly to get on the seafood bandwagon, the opposite path, ironically, that Foo's neighbor, Striped Bass, recently took.

It jumped from fish house to steak house last year, reflagged as Butcher & Singer.

Times change.

A platter of exquisite dumplings appears, each with a story - the pork pot sticker, the vegetable (a mince of baby Shanghai bok choy, spinach, and shiitake), the mushroom/chicken, the shrimp on a puddle of sun-dried tomato sauce, the deep-fried curried chicken, and "Mongolian lamb pillow," which takes her back to her childhood in Inner Mongolia, in China's north, where she was born, not as "Susanna," which was suggested to her later by a friendly American family, but Su Sui-Lan.

So the Italian produce guys at the Food Distribution Center in South Philly have it closer to the original when they call out to her, greeting her as "Sue" on her regular weekly shopping trips.

Northern China, of course, is known for its noodles (wheat being more a staple than rice), as Foo wrote in her acclaimed 1995 cookbook, Susanna Foo Chinese Cuisine. But it is also known for distinctive lamb cookery, seasoned as these delicate lamb pillows reflect, with garlic, scallions, chives, and leeks.

She would move later to more tropical climes on the southern tip of Taiwan, and in 1966 with her husband E-Hsin, to Pittsburgh, where they did graduate studies, hers in library science.

She had also studied Chinese cookery with a teacher "the equal of Julia Child in Taiwan," later taking up cooking in Western pots rather than woks, eventually helping her extended family operate a restaurant, in a former hoagie shop in Wayne, called Hu-Nan. (Her brother-in-law and his wife still have a restaurant of that name in Ardmore.)

It was at the first Hu-Nan - where the family was struggling desperately for business - that Foo met a man who changed her life.

He was Jacob Rosenthal, the retired president of the Culinary Institute of America.

He lived in an apartment a few blocks away, and (as the story goes) was impressed by Hu-Nan's fresh dishes.

He took Foo under his wing, arranged for a friend to come to Hu-Nan to teach her how to make French stocks and sauces, "how to brown bones for added flavor."

In the winter of 1981, she attended the Culinary Institute of America herself, and the rest is history: She would forgo sharp rice vinegars, she writes, replacing them with balsamic vinegar, closer to the complex flavor of the black vinegar of her youth.

She reveled in the joys of good olive oil, employing it instead of peanut and sesame oils in lighter dishes.

She found that vodka, gin, and vermouth married well with shellfish and white meat.

Yet the day after closing Susanna Foo, the family dinner she cooked in her Radnor kitchen made no pretense at innovation; it was a sauce of pork, honey and garlic, chunked with potato and tomatoes, over homemade pasta - soul food straight out of the tradition of her native northern China.

"Maybe this is the life I should have," she said afterward. "But maybe in two years, I'm tired of this."


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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