THIS RESTAURANT IS NOW CLOSED
I can usually tell how I really feel about a restaurant when I think about if and when I want to return. Sometimes I say “been there, eaten that” and move on. Other times, I haven’t even finished my meal when I start plotting a comeback (hello Izakaya Seki and Little Serow). The newly-opened Suna next to Eastern Market falls into the category of ….take a look at the headline.
The atmosphere at Suna is low-key- no bells and whistles, just rustic woodsy charm. The small space feels exclusive, and one could feel at home in jeans or dressed up. There is no artwork on the wall, no lavish adornments, no fancy lighting. It’s sparse, but at the same time intriguing. And while I am not against being wowed by decor, there is something about sparse that feels good.
The Suna concept, like the decor, is fairly simple. It does, however, require explanation. There are two options: a four course dinner for $48 and an eight course dinner for $78 (which seems like a bargain these days). The menu lists main ingredients: root vegetable, kampachi, shellfish, dashi custard, pork, fowl, apple, and hazelnut. If you opt for four courses, you have a couple of choices to make. I decide that for this first visit, I want to try everything. My husband’s dietary needs can be accommodated for eight courses, which means substitutions or omissions for the shellfish, pork, and fowl courses. Our son is a vegetarian (no fish) so when he dined at Suna a few days earlier, he is told they can only offer four courses. He is perfectly satisfied with the variety and portion sizes. In fact, his rave review has me revved up with some high expectations.
Chef Johnny Spero is young (26) but he has some serious credentials, having cooked at Komi, Toki Underground, and Copenhagen’s Noma, which is one of the most highly regarded restaurants in the world. It’s no wonder that there there is already positive buzz for Suna.
Once you make the four course vs. eight course decision, you can sit back and relax. Our server seems excited to take us through the experience and Sean Alves, the general manager/sommelier checks on us periodically and adeptly guides us on wine selections. For a restaurant that’s less than a month old, it’s particularly satisfying to benefit from the staff’s enthusiasm and competence.
An amuse bouche of caraway cracker with egg emulsion and pastrami spices is effective in setting the stage for what’s ahead. The caraway and pastrami flavors are strong and enticing.
The first course is a true revelation. It’s a combination of root vegetables (beets, celery root, grated parsnip, kohlrabi) served raw, pickled, or candied and topped with an arugula granita. Dig deeper and a beautifully sweet brown butter sauce lies beneath the surface. I don’t need to look any further than this dish for a reason to return to Suna.
Mackerel with husked cherries, pickled elderflower, and charred pureed eggplant is a well-balanced combination of sweet, smoky and sour. I am ready to lick the plate. Speaking of plates, they are all hand-crafted by local artist Amber Kendrick, and contribute to the “fine dining inspired by nature” theme of the restaurant.
Dashi custard with scallop, sea bean, and pickled mushrooms is an inventive and very tasty dish. It’s rich, smooth, and satisfying. The vegetarian version omits the scallop, which doesn’t detract from the overall effect.
The guinea hen competes with the root vegetable as something that will beckon me back to Suna. Flavors linger long after the meal is over. The hen is moist and tender, and there is a crispy piece of skin on the side to add texture. It’s an earthy dish with its accompanying confit with farro and bulgar wheat, along with sunchokes. The vegetarian version is minus the hen and confit, so I can’t imagine that it can be quite as good, but I hear nothing but admiration for the dish.
The shellfish course is my least favorite. It’s a nori cracker with mussels and Peruvian purple potato dumplings. I find it way too fishy and think the dumpling lacks any oomph. This is coming from someone who doesn’t like mussels at all unless they are seriously disguised, so I may not be the best judge. An opposing opinion comes from Chef Justin Bittner of Bar Pilar, who writes on www.donrockwell.com: ” I thought it awesome, the potato dumpling had sort of a Korean rice stick texture. Anyway I’m pretty sure they must make a broth out of mussels, reduce it and cook more mussels in it, I found it heady and rich. Only complaint, could’a had 2 more bites.”
I would have preferred the vegetarian option of pumpkin plate with black pudding/yogurt/pine nuts.
I am too full to fully enjoy braised pork with kale and daikon. It’s too bad because tender pork and crispy kale with tahini sauce really appeals to me. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t eat any of the dish. I just can’t soak in the flavors to the extent I would like.
My palate perks back up for one of the desserts. Charred apple ice cream with pressed apples, cilantro stems, and malted milk crumble. It’s saltier than it is sweet. It’s perfect. The second dessert is aerated hazelnut parfait with cocoa and hazelnut butter. I detest hazelnut, but I decide to try it. Nope. I really do detest hazelnut. My husband is more than happy to eat my share. The server learns of my hazelnut aversion too late. He tells me that next time they can offer another option.
What I like best about Suna is its lack of pretention. The emphasis is on showcasing great ingredients, rather than putting on a show. The focus is on the plate, where it should be. (I stole this line from our server, but I was thinking the same thing). The eight course menu at Suna is perfect for a long, leisurely, special-occasion meal. It’s the four course menu that will bring me back here. Definitely Suna rather than later.
Suna, 214 7th Street, SE, Washington, DC
Washingtonian Inside Look