Dishes at Suma include (clockwise from top right) challah fried chicken, slow-braised pan-seared pork spare ribs and pizza with duck confit sausage.
At Suma, a buttery purée of chicken liver and duck foie gras spread onto a corner of warm grilled raisin-walnut pumpernickel bread is an alluring balance of sweet and savory, crunchy and smooth, richness and rusticity. I wish that such satisfaction was the rule at this Bethesda eatery, which replaced Nest Café this past spring. But sadly it’s an exception.
On paper, the venture seems promising. Forty-four-year-old chef Gene Sohn, who grew up in Montgomery County, co-owns the restaurant with manager Jay Evans and a third partner, Jennifer Day, who handles public relations, marketing and finances. Sohn and Evans hail from chef Robert Wiedmaier’s Mussel Bar & Grille on adjacent Bethesda Row, where Sohn was chef de cuisine for three years.
Suma means “born in the summer in Old English,” says Sohn, but they may just as well have named the place after any other restaurant serving new American cuisine because the menu reads largely like ones found at other establishments: wings, deviled eggs, steak and fries, crab cakes, ribs—you get the drill.
Chef Gene Sohn worked at Marcel’s and Mussel Bar & Grille before opening Suma.
The setting does evoke summer. The 40-seat dining room sports goldenrod-yellow tufted banquettes; chic, modern black wooden side chairs with pearl gray seats; and sand-colored walls and hardwood floors. A backlit shadowbox wall displays candlesticks, sculptures and other decorative objects to stunning effect; likewise, the liquor bottles behind the tiny, six-seat bar. The restaurant also includes patio seating for 20, much of it enclosed.
Kudos to Evans for putting together a cocktail menu of familiar drinks with his own twists to set them apart: fresh strawberries and Sriracha jazz up a margarita; crème de cassis lends a fruity bump to a mojito; and basil and honey syrup gussy up a caipirinha. The beer list is extensive and reminiscent of Mussel Bar’s much longer list, especially in its Belgian offerings.
Also reminiscent of Mussel Bar are the servers, many eagerly volunteering that “we all came from Mussel Bar!” All are attentive, pleasant and accommodating. They also act as hosts. When you walk in the door, they gesture toward an empty table with a sweep of the hand if they’re busy or escort you if they’re not. I don’t discern a manager, someone asking if everything’s all right or helping to bus.
Sohn’s résumé also includes a four-year stint at Marcel’s, Wiedmaier’s acclaimed fine-dining venue in Washington, D.C. That begs the question: With such a good pedigree, why isn’t the food at Suma better? Despite the claim of seasonality, dishes in late summer mostly range in color from light beige to dark brown. (Perhaps I was a little grumpy on two occasions because it was punishingly hot outside and Suma’s air conditioning was broken. “They should call it Sauna,” said one companion.)
Suma’s Mule Kick is part of the restaurant’s well-crafted cocktail list (right).
Cubes of tuna tartare look wan and drab, rather than pink and bright, brimming in a cup fashioned from a sheet of fried crêpe-like feuille de brick. It’s so warm in the restaurant that I worry how the tuna was handled and fret about the raw quail yolk I’m mixing into it. The yolk doesn’t add anything to the flavor or texture; all I taste is sesame oil. That’s also the predominant note in Bonnie’s Wings, named after Sohn’s mother. If you’re going to put wings on the menu, make them crunchy, succulent and packed with zing. Sohn doesn’t.
Minus the soggy marble-size crab croquettes on top, Sohn’s blue crab soup, packed with corn, tomatoes, edamame and carrots, reminds me of the hearty vegetable soup my Alabama stepmother freezes when summer’s bounty is at its peak, destined to be a blissful reward in winter’s throes.
I’m a fan of the crab dip, a thin, breadcrumb-topped swath of lumpy crabmeat, cream cheese and Old Bay served warm on a cast-iron griddle with sliced crusty baguette. Sohn also gets the crab right in his broiled crab cake entrée, which is heavy on lumps and light on filler. But I can do without the accompanying fried Brussels sprouts and the rémoulade that brings to mind Thousand Island dressing.
Suma’s décor is a bright spot at the Bethesda restaurant.
Sohn prepares Suma’s best-seller, challah fried chicken, by brining the bird in hot chicken stock, salt and aromatics, then dredging it in challah crumbs and deep frying it. It’s a large portion—half a bird—and the meat is juicy and well seasoned. Think of it as a Shake ’N Bake update. Truffle oil and waterlogged shells detract from an otherwise decent mac-and-cheese side dish.
Sohn slow-braises pan-seared pork spare ribs in veal stock for 24 hours for a barbecue entrée, but why? The method turns them into pot roast rather than juicy, lightly smoky ribs. Thumbs up for tangy, smoky molasses baked beans (pinto, lima, black, navy, kidney); thumbs down for dried-out, overcooked corn on the cob.
Chocolate chip cookies are served with chocolate milk.
Nicely cooked shrimp and scallops look fetching atop risotto black from squid ink, but the rice is so overcooked, lacking the all-important al dente bite, that it more closely resembles porridge. Mussels should be a no-brainer for a Mussel Bar alum, but I return mine after eating one against my better judgment; their odor was that off-putting.
Pizza, with thin and pleasingly chewy crust, is not a bad way to go at Suma, especially when topped with home- made duck confit sausage, caramelized onions, smoked Gruyere cheese, scallion shreds and hoisin sauce, a smart riff on Peking duck.
To end a meal at Suma, stick with the basics: a warm brownie sundae with caramel sauce or giant, just-out-of-the-oven chocolate chip cookies (topped unnecessarily with bacon), under-baked just right and served with rich Belgian-chocolate milk. With luck, the sweet notes will help you forget the sour ones.
SUMA RESTAURANT AND BAR
4921 Bethesda Ave., Bethesda, 301-718-6378, www.sumabethesda.com
David Hagedorn is the restaurant critic for Bethesda Magazine.