SUZANNE'S AMERICAN KITCHEN -- 9116 Rothbury Dr., Gaithersburg. 301-990-0995. Open: Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. MC, V. No reservations. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $2.95 to $6.95, entrees $3.95 to $13.95. Dinner with wine or beer, tax and tip about $23 to $36 per person.
A REAL OLD-STYLE NEIGHBORhood restaurant does more than nourish your body. It nourishes your social life. It's a place where "everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came," as "Cheers" has taught us over the years. Problem is, good neighborhood restaurants are rare in the sprawl of the outer suburbs. Where do you put a traditional neighborhood restaurant in a place without traditional neighborhoods? Enter Suzanne's American Kitchen, one of a small but growing number of eating and meeting places that are finding a logical niche for themselves in those little shopping centers studded here and there amid the housing developments.
When it comes to filling its social function, Suzanne's has all the bases covered: a friendly, outgoing staff, a cozy little bar, a broad menu ranging from sandwiches to full dinners, an impressive array of micro-brewery beers, an interesting list of American wines (all available by the glass), a children's menu, a Sunday brunch buffet, entertainment on some nights. There's even a frequent-diner plan that gets you a free entree on every eighth dinner visit -- talk about attracting regulars! And Suzanne's looks the part -- spare but inviting, brightly decked out in red, white and blue. The place exudes good cheer and informality.
Fashionably old-fashioned, Suzanne's serves a lot of updated traditional dishes (pot roast, turkey with stuffing, etc.) modernized mainly with dried herbs. In some dishes they're used cleverly, in others they're dusted on with such a heavy hand that you can barely taste the basic ingredients. In short, Suzanne's is not a place for inspired cooking. Still, the menu is broad and admirably ambitious, and it's supplemented by an impressive list of nightly specials. It offers some solid hits among the misses -- certainly enough of them to make you a regular if you live in the area.
The frying here is beautiful, so when it comes to a snack or appetizer don't hesitate to try the fried oysters. Wrapped in a feather-light cornmeal batter zapped with rosemary, they're herby but not overly so. Another top-notch fried appetizer is the special of Boston fish bites in a beer batter, a Yankee version of tempura. Also consider the excellent Georgia fries, thin strips of deep-fried sweet potato. Or go for the equally good barbecued (actually fried) onions, or the black-bean chili, zippy and well-balanced. Shrimp, available as an appetizer or entree in several variations, have been excellent -- plump, tender, fresh-tasting. The only unmitigated appetizer flop has been the marinated beef tips, which were dry and mealy textured when we tried them.
Most of Suzanne's soups are good bets, including the simple, soothing cheddar cheese soup, rich but not cloying. (Note that the macaroni and cheese entree plays the same soothing theme.) The oyster bisque special is straightforward and satisfying. But forget the split pea. It's as thick as a dip and so sharply over-herbed that you can barely make out the peas.
Among the stylishly old-fashioned entrees, the roast turkey is a solid winner. The succulent, thick-sliced meat has real flavor, and the bread stuffing is airy in texture, nicely peppery and gently herbed. Like the other all-American dishes, the turkey comes with first-class mashed potatoes and gravy -- the real thing, like your mom made before she discovered instant food. The pot roast could give the turkey a run for its money if it weren't so fatty. The pot pies are near-winners too -- the turkey version has a lovely sauce, gently flavored with what tastes like thyme -- but the pastry "lids" have been doughy, unappetizing discs.
Suzanne's baby-back ribs are outstanding -- succulent and crusty-surfaced, with the tender meat poised to fall off the bone. (The vinegar-sharp sauce is good but over-applied, so ask for it on the side.) Just as impressive is the barbecued chicken, which has a lively sauce that infuses the meat right down to the bone. Santa Fe chicken is a good idea: grilled chicken morsels served with an excellent black-bean sauce and a zingy corn salad, wrapped fajita-style in a wheat tortilla. But when we tried it the meat was dry and over-charred -- probably an isolated slip-up. Finally, here's a trio of regular entrees to avoid: the catfish, fried in the same good batter as the oyster appetizer but soft, watery and overwhelmed by rosemary; the crab cakes, nicely flavored but mushy and over-handled; and the vegetarian pasta, incredibly bland and boring (where are those herbs when you need them?).
As for the nightly specials, watch for the excellent Atlantic combo -- shrimp, scallops and crab in a delightful sauce of wine, garlic and fresh tomato, served over pasta. Also pleasant are the grilled tuna, the improbably named "Catskill chicken" (stuffed with sausage) and the grilled oriental duck in its lovely lime-sesame-soy sauce.
The Sunday brunch buffet is bountiful and bargain-priced at $9.95. Focus on the fine made-to-order waffles and omelets, the bagels and lox and the special hot dishes, but pass up the soggy eggs Benedict and the spongy French toast.
Among the 28 micro-brews, a standout is St. Stan's amber, wonderfully yeasty, fruity and creamy-rich. If you're partial to a dark, no-nonsense ale in the slightly bitter English style, go for the Oxford Classic, brewed in Maryland and available on tap. For an excellent flinty-dry white wine try the Brander sauvignon blanc, or, for something fuller and fruitier, the Callaway Morning Harvest chenin blanc. Among the reds, consider the interesting Fleur de Carneros pinot noir, peppery and complex, or the smooth, nicely astringent Frey petite sirah.
You'd expect an all-American restaurant with this impressive a menu to make at least a few all-American desserts -- bread pudding and apple cobbler, say. No such luck. So ignore the commercial pastries and concentrate on ice cream (the fittingly old-fashioned Breyer's). Have it with the good fresh-fruit toppings -- the blackberry is excellent -- but skip the squirt-can whipped topping.
Any restaurant that tries as many things as Suzanne's is entitled to a few flubs. Just sidestep them, concentrate on the good stuff and wish Suzanne's the best. Every shopping center should have a place like this.
Mark and Gail Barnett are freelance restaurant critics. Phyllis C. Richman is on vacation.