There was a girl in my high school who had the unfortunate reputation of being, shall we say, easy. This, of course, didn’t really affect me: I couldn’t get a date no matter how hard I tried. But for other, more fortunate guys, this meant she was worth the chase. The logic went like this: If you could get alone with her, then your efforts would be, uh, rewarded. Reality was secondary at best; perception, in her case, meant everything.
Which brings us to Susanna Foo, the Center City house of haute Chinese cuisine, a trendsetter in the beginning of the restaurant renaissance of decades past, and daily destination for dozens of out-of-towners here for vacations or conventions, even despite its high prices.
Which is exactly why I though it would be perfect for $100 Baby: Would such a “destination restaurant” be conducive to dining on a budget? Would it be possible to take a date there and still have money left over for a drink or a movie?
It turned out, surprisingly, that I was asking all the wrong questions. The one I should have been posing was this: Is Susanna Foo’s reputation built on current reality or past glory?
The tip-off came as soon as we were seated during a recent Thursday night dinner. One glance around the room showed a high proportion of out-of-town guests (convention bags are the giveaway here). I usually get nervous when the visitors outnumber the locals at a supposedly high-end restaurant. Sadly, those nerves proved to be all too justified.
Not that our meal was bad – far from it. It’s just that it was not nearly as good as I would have hoped, or expected, especially for $107.58.
We began with the Mongolian lamb pillows stuffed with leek, cumin, and tarragon ($9). The flavors were delicious, both deep and rich, and the dumplings themselves managed to be delicate and well-constructed-not an easy feat. The accompanying ancho-chili sauce and Chinese eggplant were nice additions, though the sauce could have been more flavorful.
We also ordered the hot and sour soup with shiitake mushrooms, pork, tofu, and tiger lily buds ($7). There was some wonderful heat to this soup that is, at far too many restaurants, usually a corn-starch-rich bowl of brown and barely spicy sludge with depressing little strips of kitchen scraps. Here, though, the ingredients were fresh, the flavors reasonably well-delineated, and the heat perfect.
It was, however, downhill from there. Our first entrÃ©e, the mu-shu pork with brandy hoisin sauce ($19), while tasty, was far too salty. Again, the ingredients were fresh and the preparation itself was beautiful, but for this price, I had expected a mu-shu experience like none I had ever had before. Unfortunately, it was average at best. In fact, over salting like that-or over-soy saucing, as the case may be-is unacceptable in a place with Susanna Foo’s reputation.
As for our other entrÃ©e, the honey walnut chicken with snap peas, mango, and pickled young ginger ($17), it was underwhelming, too. Flavorful, sure, but also too salty.
Even dessert, the banana chocolate tartlet with caramelized banana, honey-ginger syrup, sabayon sauce, and roasted banana ice cream ($9), was overly sweet and muddled.
So the question of what lies beneath a solid reputation is both interesting and instructive. And in the case of Susanna Foo, the answer is more than a bit disappointing. Maybe it was a bad night in the kitchen, but most high-end restaurants only get one chance to impress a guest. And the location, within steps of other noteworthy dining destinations, makes it too easy to go elsewhere next time. For $100, the chase might not be worth it after all.
Susanna Foo, 1512 Walnut St., Philadelphia, 215.545.2666; www.susannafoo.com
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