Young and Hungry

Gut Reaction: The Smoked Duck Doesn’t Suck at Suna Pop-Up

Smoked duck – sunchokes – flowering herbs

This is not a formal review, but rather an off-the-cuff first-impressions-style riff on a brand-spankin' new D.C. restaurant.

If this week's pop-up preview of the forthcoming, Latvian-titled Eastern Market eatery Suna (English translation: moss) is any indication, then diners can expect a very dimly lit, wine-centric parade of tiny three-bite portioned plates that isn't particularly easy on the wallet, or entirely filling to the gut. Granted, a whole lot could change between now and next winter, when the new restaurant from Toki Underground's Erik Bruner-Yang, Acqua al 2's Ari Gejdenson, and former Komi chef Johny Spero is expected to open for business.

I suppose that's part of the whole point: beta-testing a rough sketch of the menu to work out some early kinks while also promoting a place doesn't even really exist yet. That and attracting even more gawkers to the ginormous LivingSocial events complex in Penn Quarter, of course. (Every time I enter that antiquish cage elevator, I can't stop thinking about the epic fight scene from Diamonds Are Forever.)

Initial impressions of the eight-course, four-drink $119-per person dinner: My dining companions and I enjoyed the first dish, a kampachi tartare. The fish tasted fresh, though we initially had a hard time discerning the trio of garnishes that we were directed to eat separately (pickled radish, preserved lemon and rice gel) in the virtual darkness of the dining room. The brick walls were strangely shrouded in black cloths, lending the place an almost goth vibe. Tiny shrubs (presumably the non-photosynthesizing kind) adorned each table. I guess the low-light conditions have something to do with the whole moss theme. But this is supposed to be fine dining—not spelunking. How bout some candles or something, fellas?

The second course, a crab and grapefruit salad dripping with buttermilk, left us a little cold. The dish proved refreshing if a bit unremarkable. The drink pairing, a dry Italian Gewurztraminer, which also accompanied the earlier kampachi plate, really smacked of alcohol on the second go-round.

Next up, the overall loser of the night: small chunks of scallop served with four types of mushrooms over chawanmushi (custard) with some truffled chips on top. Total 'shroom-overdose.

Then we get to the really good stuff: tender, juicy smoked duck, perfectly cooked, with sunchokes and herbs in a delicious duck jus that had us practically licking the plate in an attempt to identify the mysterious lemongrass-like flavor lingering on our tongues. Later, when he appeared at our table, the chef dished up the secret: kaffir lime.

A rich, tasty short rib followed, beautifully adorned with flowers. Bullet casing-shaped bits of banana, though, added little if any flavor. An oaky red from Valpolicella proved properly robust for both meat courses.

Sweet potato with caramel sauce and a dusting of cayenne highlighted the desserts, though I also enjoyed the trio of fruity gel squares that capped the evening. Sadly, my glass of Passito Bianco disappeared long before the final dessert it was intended to accompany.

Like many tasting menu-style experiences, the Suna event is prone to provoke a financial debate. After all, the steep ticket price is a hefty downpayment on an evening that inevitably leads elsewhere—neighboring restaurant Proof, in the case of my dining companions—to quell the lingering hunger pangs.

If a la carte is an option when the new restaurant finally opens, though, I'll be placing multiple orders of the duck.

Photo by Chris Shott