First Taste: Suma Restaurant + Bar

First Taste: Suma Restaurant + Bar

Stick-to-your-ribs classics in downtown Bethesda

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The dining room at Suma Restaurant + Bar in Bethesda

Laura Hayes

The story

A stone’s throw from Bethesda Row sits Suma Restaurant + Bar, a new concept replacing Nest. “I call it modern American, but it’s twists on old classics,” says chef and partner Gene Sohn, who co-owns the Bethesda Avenue neighborhood bistro with Jay Evans and Jennifer Day. “I don’t use tweezers to plate, we’re not shooting for fine dining.”

Sohn and Evans met during their last gig at Mussel Bar & Grille in Bethesda. Together, they transformed the wood-laden space into a lighter, brighter golden-hued dining room with an expanded patio. The restaurant preaches an all-too-familiar mantra with buzzwords like “fresh ingredients,” “from scratch,” and “seasonal”—but seasonality eludes the pair.

Lamb ragout with herb gnocchi and charred kale

The food

I’m sitting on an inviting patio twisting my face so I can soak in the last rays of spring sun when our food arrives. Immediately, something is off. Despite the fact that Suma means “born during the summer” in Old English, our entrées look ready to feed the cast of Game of Thrones in the throes of winter.

A dish described as roasted lamb ragout with herb gnocchi is stew-like, with hunks of protein that must be knifed and forked, for example. The kale that held promise of brightening the bowl of hibernation fuel falls short because the leafy green forms one long ribbon—like a magician yanking out an infinite chain of hankies—instead of being bite-sized. The rich, savory gravy that coats the gnocchi saves the dish. 

BBQ pork spareribs with coleslaw and sweet potato fries 

Two other entrées also time-travel back to January. The pork spareribs arrive, the size of forearms, auditioning to be a main course at the Maryland Renaissance Festival. When prodded with a fork, they quiver due to fat content, the gristle rendering them unappetizing. Only the plump, crisp sweet potato fries don’t make it to the doggy bag. 

Also gargantuan, the challah fried chicken comes with a trough of truffle mac and cheese. “It is a hearty dish, but I don’t mind big portions,” Sohn says. He brines the birds and gives them a quick poach to “retain their juiciness,” yet the final product is parched and scant on breading. I want to holler, where’s the challah?

Even the cheeseburger is a heavy lift, wrapped as it is in prosciutto. If your value calculation comes down to size alone, consider Suma a good deal because each entrée ($17-$28) could feed two.

Maryland crab dip with Old Bay

Starters are more successful, and seasonally agreeable, such as spring asparagus salad or roasted tomato bisque with basil oil. But every trip to Suma should commence with Sohn’s crab dip. “My binder is more crabmeat,” Sohn explains, hence the surplus of morsels nestled under a toasted panko crust instead of a skillet full of fillers like breading.

Honey-Basil Caipirinha

Bar buzz

Cocktails at Suma ($8-$12) swing the spectrum of a light and breezy “Honey-Basil Caipirinha” to a dark and broody “Sumadier.” The latter is a retitled boulevardier with rye, Campari and vermouth. Suma also dreams up unconventional flights—like a beer flight that empowers guests to pick their four favorite drafts in mini-size ($13), or an oyster shooter flight ($20) whose flavors include “Thai One On” with rum, coconut and sriracha sauce. A wine list awash with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir offers bottles in the $36-$56 range. 

Jay Evans serves guests on the patio

The vibe

The patio feels like the only choice on an evening with temperatures worth yearning for, and we’re not alone. Save for one table in the 50-seat dining room, all parties are packed into the al fresco area where you’ll want to linger. Our server cheerily makes recommendations and takes orders, but is lax in follow-up and drink refills. The evening attracted a young family with baby in tow, and a few groups who appeared to clean their plates. Without music piped onto the patio, the meal felt a little sleepy. 

The patio scene

Go, wait or skip

Wait. Suma seems like a case where Sohn straight-jacked himself from celebrating the bounty of spring because he was committed to an opening menu of tested dishes. Perhaps a response from customers will nudge him to refocus the menu. If you’re on a bikini diet, hold off a few weeks until he does. “We’re starting to incorporate summer dishes as specials,” he says.

Suma is open 11:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 11:30 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. Fridays-Saturdays and 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Sundays. Brunch is served 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the weekend.

Suma Restaurant + Bar, 4921 Bethesda Ave., Bethesda; 301-718-6378; www.sumabethesda.com

All photos by Laura Hayes

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