Susu is a Vietnamese sensation in Beijing that offers speciality dishes and modern renditions of classics. Owners Amy Li, a Chinese life coach, and her husband Jonathan Ansfield, an American reporter, renovated a 140-year-old siheyuan, restoring the original dark wooden beams. The space now features spare modern furnishings with a bright courtyard and rooftop for outdoor dining.
When a restaurant first opens, the industry calls it a ‘soft opening’ so diners understand that the place is finding its footing. Sometimes a discount is offered, but the period usually only lasts a month. Since April, Susu has been operating in ‘soft opening’ mode. The Li-Ansfield team call themselves humble amateurs but this is their third, albeit most adventurous venture. Susu is usually packed, often requiring reservations. With that, it seems time to take the training wheels off.
A rotating lunch menu is value for money, with set meals (50-72RMB) including a Susu salad or fresh spring roll and soft drink. It’s a shame that many mains available during the day are then unavailable at dinner, a quirk of the shift system worked by the two Vietnamese chefs. So dishes like the divine banh cuon (60RMB or set for 72RMB), with mushrooms and minced pork inside rolls of soft rice-noodle sheets, sadly aren’t available at any time. The crusty banh mi baguettes (38-45RMB/50-58RMB set) come with the requisite liver paté, yellow mayonnaise and pickled vegetables, but they are almost all bread and missing the steamed pork sausage and head cheese that make for a classic banh mi.
Susu’s cold starters are where both authenticity and innovation come through brightly, featuring fresh ingredients and flavours. Susu’s namesake squash (also known as chayote) comes in several dishes and appears shredded and raw in the Susu shrimp salad (48RMB) that comes without shrimp as part of the lunch set.
The fresh rolls are the highlight of the menu, blending the familiar with unexpected variations that have clever names. Most can be ordered either pre-wrapped (30-48RMB) or as an interactive DIY (98-118RMB). For DIY fun, a deconstructed wrap includes herbs, vermicelli and other accoutrements, alongside brittle wrappers to be moistened and rolled. Of the fried rolls, however, the classic cha gio (48RMB) is a disappointment – loosely rolled, slightly soggy and bland.
The mains on Susu’s dinner menu don’t quite hit the authentic or the innovative end of the spectrum. Pho is a must at a place like this, but Susu’s beef version feels like an obligation – fine but unexciting, with slices of pink beef (45RMB) and a plateful of garnishing herbs. The caramelised claypot fish (78RMB) lacks an expected sweetness, and the beef stew (88RMB) has a cornstarch-like thickness and is weak on spices. The tamarind crab (168RMB) was a gorgeous plate of two brightly coloured sea crabs quartered, lightly battered and fried, then tossed in a light, sticky sour glaze. But they just weren’t fresh, a common problem with seafood in Beijing.
Dessert is a lowlight. Of the many possibilities of che (dessert beverages or soups) or xoi (sticky rice) in the Vietnamese repertoire, one wonders how herbal grass jelly (an acquired taste and misleadingly labelled ‘mint lemongrass jelly’) and a mediocre agar jelly made the menu.
The drinks menu is stronger on cocktails, with creative mixes such as the Saigon fizz. The non-alcoholic, distinctly Vietnamese options include a fresh lemon soda and sweet traditional drip coffee.
Despite a few unremarkable dishes, it’s refreshing to see a Vietnamese restaurant that so clearly knows it’s way beyond the trite bowl of pho. Susu’s two chefs hail from the north and the south of Vietnam, and it shows in the restaurant’s impressive selection, from northern-hued beef noodle soup to southern classics including sour fish soup. It’s rare to find this kind of comprehensiveness at a Vietnamese restaurant anywhere, much less in Beijing.
By Julie Wan