Just not enough to this minimalism
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, March 17, 2013
On the surface, Suna, co-owned by chefs Ari Gejdenson and Johnny Spero, pushes all the right food nerd buttons.
Consider the trend-punching resume. Spero, Suna’s 27-year-old executive chef, has sauteed and steamed in some of Washington’s most popular kitchens, Komi and Toki Underground. Until Town House closed last year, he cooked at the acclaimed eatery in tiny Chilhowie, Va.
Further, Suna, a neighbor to Gejdenson’s Acqua al 2, aims to offer some of the flavor of fine dining at prices it considers more approachable: $48
for a four-course tasting and $78 for eight dishes. Like many modern American purveyors, the Capitol Hill newcomer cooks to the tune of the season and makes a deal of buying local ingredients.
Suna is reached via a narrow hall and a flight of stairs. What used to be Gejdenson’s apartment and office has been converted into a rustic dining room with fewer than 40 seats. Old wood walls, Danish-made chairs and custom-built walnut tables paint a minimalist picture. A trio of skylights and a view of Eastern Market across the street bring the outside indoors.
Flowers have no home here. Instead, stone and moss serve as table centerpieces. Suna is Latvian for moss, says Spero, who pays tribute to his grandmother with the green detail. The subdued natural design puts one in mind of Amsterdam or Copenhagen, where the chef briefly apprenticed at what has been hailed as the best restaurant in the world: Noma, the boundary-pushing celebration of Nordic cooking.
Armed with that information, your initial taste shouldn’t come as a wonder: A glassy, seed-freckled cracker with a dot of “smoked egg emulsion” and “pastrami spices,” a server announces. The hors d’oeuvre comes with a crackle, followed by notes of smoke and caraway. “Meatless pastrami,” the chef calls his opening act. The tidbit is fun, if a tad precious.
The short menu offers two choices per course. Diners who opt for the longer list eat the whim of the chef. As spare as the setting, the menu boils down descriptions of dishes to three ingredients. A first course called Allium Consomme discloses “yolk,” “chervil” and “salsify.” Root Vegetable, another tersely named appetizer, begins with “raw pickled candied” followed by “arugula” and “brown butter.” Roll those descriptors around in your mind; even for someone who lives to eat, it’s hard to get a sense of how they might play together. And pleasant as the servers are at Suna, their rapid-fire narratives do little to illuminate your understanding.
Both dishes, it turns out, are jokes without punch lines. The soup, in which a broth of charred ginger and leeks is poured over a soft-cooked egg and fried salsify, is dreadful the first time. Blame fell on a tepid consomme. But even a second round, with warm stock, didn’t make me a fan of what goes down like canned fried onions in water. As for the salad, some of the vegetables were so cold, it was as if we were eating them straight from the tundra. Frigid temperatures and bursts of cloying sweetness from candied celery root sent the dish back to the kitchen largely untouched. Curiously, no one asked why.
The second course yields a dash more contentment. Fingerling potatoes tossed in buttermilk powder and roasted to a tangy turn show up with turnips cooked in hazelnut oil and sheer ribbons of lardo, or cured pork fat. Beneath the loose salad is a subtle cashew “cream” that adds little to the equation. An alternate second course, for diners who have opted for the shorter menu, is a twist on Japanese custard, or chawanmushi. Spoon into the bowl and up comes a bite of ivory custard, cured scallop and mushrooms that have been roasted, pickled or left raw. It’s a cool and pleasing experience on approach, but not a lingering satisfaction.
Mid-meal, a slice of bread, one per diner, is brought out. In the soft light, the house-baked Danish rye appears almost black; thick and hearty, it’s served with butter that’s whipped on-site. The combination -- seeded bread, creamy fat -- is as comforting as a catch-up call with an old friend. I always crave a loaf of the stuff, not just because the bread is so good but because it suggests a serious cook behind it. Where is that talent the rest of the night?
Far too much at Suna goes down like a misguided experiment, and almost every dish could stand to drop a detail or two. Breast of guinea hen is fine on its own, but it comes with what tastes like hot cereal and a green powder of dried broccoli. The grains (farro and bulgar) impress me as something the fowl should have eaten, while the filings suggest colored sawdust. A block of pork shoulder is pleasant enough. The meat is festooned with kale leaves that have been swabbed with grapeseed oil, dusted with yeast flakes and baked till crisp. The big chips are fun. The vivid green puddle of pureed kale stems beneath the entree? Not so much. With a nightly repertoire of only a dozen or so dishes, the kitchen should ace more of them.
By my third visit, I’m tempted to ask for the bill before the tedium -- er, tasting -- is over. If desserts are not awful, they are strange. The simply billed “Chocolate” is like raiding the freezer in the dark. I get a taste of something resembling frozen poundcake followed by hard chocolate and orange blossom water. The union does not produce a happy marriage in the mouth. Apple plus cilantro plus sorghum plus malted milk equals “a lot of work for little reward,” a friend says, taking the words out of my mouth and summing up the entire evening.
The unfocused Suna calls to mind a pique of mine: restaurants that taste like rehearsals but charge full admission.