Sūna is both the prettiest and most interesting new restaurant in D.C. Bold statement? Perhaps. But chef-owner Johnny Spero and his team have created an elegant experience in food and decor that lovingly honors nature in a distinctly urban setting.
Nature inspires every facet of Sūna, starting with the name of the place itself. The word means moss in Latvian, the language Chef Spero heard growing up in his grandmother’s kitchen. Spero is one third of a set of triplets and often found himself dropped off with their grandmother when his parents needed a hand with the kids. There he came to appreciate her ability to whip up feasts of humble eastern European fare (“peasant food,” as he lovingly calls it) and first discovered his own passion to become a professional cook.
That passion has taken him to some of the most-influential kitchens in the world – Noma, Alinea – as well as notable local spots like Komi and Rogue 24. The modernist influences those restaurants are known for certainly shows in his innovative cooking, but there is a more comfortable quality as well. There is no desire here to engage in showy molecular gastronomy for its own sake – and no ingredient is rendered unrecognizable, even when the methodology used to produce a dish might sound rather like a chemistry experiment when first described. At its core, this is still a seasonal, market-driven restaurant that sends the sous chef to the Dupont Farmers Market every week to pick out produce and sources the majority of their ingredients from within a few hundred miles.
When we first entered before service one afternoon and walked back towards the open kitchen, the air was intensely redolent of sage. The source, an experiment in the large food dehydrator to create crispy sage leaves without frying. A vegetable course of root vegetables involved elements which were smoked, pickled, roasted, and raw, all complementing one another, and topped with an arugula granita creating a bracingly cold, lightly sweet element.
Pickling comes into play elsewhere on the menu, such as a pickled mackerel that is pickled with elderflower and white wine vinegar for just a few hours, leaving it with a fresh taste and intriguing texture, and then served with a smokey eggplant puree, sweet husk cherries, and acidic sorrel greens. Spero’s deftness with vegetables is really the star of every dish, even a slow-cooked pork shoulder which is served with confit garlic puree, daikon radish, and other elements somewhat inspired by a traditional bowl of ramen, and then topped with a crispy, salty, kale chip – which just on its own is an amazing bite (so good, in fact, even the chef has a habit of snacking on the chips back in the kitchen).
During Spero’s time at Komi he served briefly as a pastry chef as well as chef de partie and he applies the same creativity to the dessert program at Sūna as the savory. Much has already been made in the press of his interesting hazelnut parfait, which is finished in a vacuum freezer to create a delightful, airy texture with a structure of big bubbles that collapse and almost dissolve in one’s mouth.
Another dessert, a charred apple ice cream with cilantro is so bright and green with apple slices cooked in cilantro water that even “not a dessert person” people will find it appealing (while a dust of their own malted milk powder will satisfy the more traditional sweet-eater). The ice cream did leave us with our biggest complaint of any of the things we sampled though – that being that the interesting, modern-looking spoons we were given were just a bit to deep for our dainty lady-mouths.
Every element of Sūna feels homey and authentic, albeit in an elevated way. A hallway by the kitchen is stacked with cookbooks and jars of spices and ingredients which, while attractive, are not there just for decoration – the space simply lacks for storage, so things have to be put somewhere. The space itself was originally intended as a private apartment for co-owner Ari Gejdenson, and the pair hand-sourced and built much of it themselves, leaving as many of the original beams, skylights, and fixtures in place as possible. Even the plates and pitchers used are a fully custom set hand-made by a friend of the chef. When asked how long Spero spent working on the Sūna project he says that the build-out took most of a year, but that the concept of this being the restaurant he wanted to open has essentially always been with him – and that genuine love and commitment really shines through in everything they do.