Lunch Tuesday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., dinner Monday through Saturday 6 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. MC, V. No reservations. Prices: Appetizers about $2 to $4, main courses $4 to $7, desserts $2.50.
I like Suzanne's. But can I forgive her?
A high-quality carryout shop-delicatessen and a cafe should form a perfectly symbiotic relationship, for the cafe can use whatever marvelous ingredients haven't sold in the delicatessen to create daily surprises for lunchtime. No need for anything to languish past its prime.
And Suzanne's has done it better, adding a wine bar to a neighborhood that has long needed a quiet and tasteful gathering place.
So, Suzanne's one flight up from its intriguing little cheese-pate-pastry-and-other-whimsies carryout, was as welcome to its neighborhood as a first grandchild and showed the promise of a child prodigy.
Two rooms with a bar between serve as the new Dupont Circle hangout. Even Nora -- of Nora's restaurant -- frequents the wine bar. The rooms are filled with sunlight from tall townhouse windows; thus Connecticut Avenue decorates the front room. So does a carved wooden fireplace. Tiny tile tables and bentwood chairs nearly fill the room. It is charming -- but not comfortable, given the noise level and, on occasion, the heat level and the fact that your coat keeps being brushed off your chair onto the floor as waiters squeeze by.
But that is generally excused as part of the style, along with waiters who seem more smart than adept, more eager than experienced.
The menu is on a blackboard, and the most extensive part of it is the list of wines by the glass. They are enticing, ranging usually from $1.75 to $3.50, with exceptions for champagne ($4.25) or an occasional event like opening a bottle of Chateau Lafitte. There are excellent California boutique wines, and port, and American dessert wines -- the list changes and always shows more appealing choices than would be reasonable to drink by the glass. Thus goes the list of bottles, too: interesting choices with some extraordinarily low prices. This may be the only wine list in town with an Alsatian gewurztraminer for less than $10. And the carafe wines are no less worth investigating.
One could go on about the wines, for they are really the most successful aspect of Suzanne's restaurant.
The food can be good. In fact, it usually tastes good. But it is erratically priced (usually too high for its style and quality) and slapdash. It is food that you eat with relish but that ultimately leaves you feeling a little insulted and ripped off.
An example: Hummus as an appetizer is $4. That's a lot of money for hummus in a restaurant without tablecloths, but it comes with crudites, says the menu. The hummus turns out fine, the standard hummus, but certainly not exceptional. The crudites, unfortunately, are crude. Hacked-up carrots. Wilted scallion brushes. Brown-edged celery. Cut asparagus tops and bottoms. Zucchini half-decayed, slimy -- a mess. And the only breads to dip were rye and raisin-pumpernickel, hardly a match for hummus.
This is what I got when they knew me as a restaurant critic -- plus the wrong dish altogether on another day. Maybe the average diner fares better. Maybe they don't want more lunchers steered their way.
How else can one explain a Key West shrimp salad for $7 consisting of thin slices of shrimp -- which looked like a lot more than it actually was -- that showed their black veins, on brown-edged salad greens (with Suzanne's excellent creamy vinaigrette) garnished with perfectly ripe papaya and grapefruit wedges that were clumsily cut and dried-out. Another day the sesame beef salad was tasteless, being mostly rice and there being no apparent attempt to adjust the seasoning.
Typically, the blackboard menu will list one soup (the oyster stew, creamy and buttery and lightly sprinkled with thyme was a winner, but the corn chowder missed excellence by being over-powered with bacon). An imaginative sandwich combination will be listed, perhaps smoked chicken and cheese with avocado -- a good combination, one discovers -- or smoked beef with Boursin. At $5 (including, usually, a garnish such as ratatouille) the sandwiches ought to be outstanding; sometimes they are.
Usually there is a pastry-wrapped main course, and those have been the best efforts. One day a ricotta and artichoke pie in filo dough was rich and zesty, benefiting from fresh artichokes and -- an unexpectedly successful touch -- raisins. Another day, pissaladiere, the French version of pizza with anchovies and onions, was light, with a crust as eggy and buttery as brioche, and delicate, with chunks of tomato and just enough anchovies for tang and not enough to overwhelm. At $4.25, including a salad (also brown-edged greens, but again that superb dressing) it was one of the few good values on the menu. A salade maison, just a green salad with a small wedge of cheese, slivers of red bell pepper and tiny (excellent) nicoise olives, is the same price.
Each day you can find a vintner platter and a cheese sampler for $7; they are reliable choices, because the carryout has very good cheeses and some suave pates. And the platters are garnished with interesting condiments from downstairs, as well. But with the price having jumped $1 between my second and third visits, their value has become shaky.
As you can see when you enter, Suzanne's has homemade and well-made desserts. Each time I try another, though -- a too-sweet walnut and date shortbread pie or pecan pie, a pleasant but starchy coconut pie -- I realize that I am foolish to stray from the chocolate chestnut torte. It is as close to fudge as a torte can come without actually being fudge. It is very dark and very rich and very smooth and quite unforgettable, particularly if your piece has a crunch of caramelized almonds on top. And good coffee in thick mugs or espresso in tiny blue-banded cups ends lunch happily.
Until the check.
When lunch for two costs $30 with just a glass of wine each (with tax and tip), or $40 if you have sampled a couple of glasses each, or $10 each only if you eat lightly, the food deserves careful scrutiny. And, while Suzanne's is undeniably likable (just look at everybody waiting in line for a table), it doesn't bear such scrutiny well.
It is a casual restaurant. But the casualness seems to be more on the part of the staff than the patrons. The patrons have to wait in line. The patrons have to shout over the noise and cope with coats in laps and help the waiters over their rough spots. The dining room is casual in its attention and the kitchen is casual in its care with the ingredients. Casual is not necessarily synonymous with uncomfortable or careless. Suzanne's needs to depend less on charm and more on effort.