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Chef Johnny Spero on S?na's Fall Debut, His Inspirations and the New Fine Dining

The kitchen
The kitchen

[Design and sketches: Michael Francis/Queue, LLC]

Last March came word that Ari Gejdenson and Erik Bruner-Yang were teaming up with local chef Johnny Spero — formerly of Komi, Toki Underground Chilhowie's acclaimed Town House — on a new albeit mysterious restaurant named S?na. Bruner-Yang is no longer a partner in the project as he's now dealing with a new one of his own, but Spero and Gejdenson are moving right along with the restaurant which they're hoping could open as soon as this fall.

Though they haven't wanted to reveal much about the forthcoming restaurant — the exact address in Eastern Market is still a mystery — here now Spero shares some of the sketches for the space, what he wants S?na to be and taking inspiration from the restaurants he loves.

What's your plan so far?
We're trying to do what some people would consider four-star food in a casual, approachable atmosphere. I'd like to go to a restaurant in a t-shirt and jeans and not break the bank, just still have an absolutely amazing meal. So it's food that's going to be executed at the highest level, but you can go in and hang out. I think it's something DC has kind of missed.

Are you going to be doing that in terms of design or in terms of the dress code or...
The whole place. There's no tablecloths. We still haven't picked out uniforms, but servers aren't going to be wearing button-down shirts. They'll probably be wearing jeans. We've been working on the playlist for the music. Some of my music might not make it on there, but I have some Misfits and some punk, but some other stuff too. The environment we've created is going to be more fun and relaxed.

What is the space going to be like?
It's one level. It's a pretty small space. It's 42 seats, an open kitchen. The space itself is the way we found it is pretty much how we kept it. It's a lot of raw wood, raw brick. Very monochromatic. There's not a lot of bright colors. It's a very neutral space.

Any big design plans for it?
The biggest design element is figuring out how to fit the kitchen in the space. It's a pretty tight area, so creating an open kitchen that's visually appealing... we could have put up a wall and just put the kitchen however we wanted to, but to create something that was functional and that the guests wouldn't mind staring at for their entire dinner — that's where a lot of the focus was. There's a lot of wood beams and a lot of them are load-bearing in the middle of the dining room. We couldn't take 'em out. It kind of looks like how people design their restaurants to be — like reclaimed wood. Our space already looked like that so that was kind of a plus for us.

Tell me a little bit about menu planning.
We're not doing a la carte. It's going to be two tasting menus, a four-course and an eight-course. So still pretty small. We wanted to have both ends of the spectrum as far as dining. You could come in and — not going to say dine every day — but it's not going to kill you to come in a couple times a month if you do the four-course. But still on the opposite of that an eight-course menu. It could be that special occasion space too.

Do you have price points set already?
We've been throwing numbers back and forth. Somewhere around $48 and $78. It's still not set in stone, but we definitely want it where the menu itself is not going to be over $100. It's what you would on average spend when you go to a restaurant and get a couple courses. So I think it's a good deal.

Kind of your own dream restaurant?
Yeah exactly. There's a lot of restaurants outside of DC, I'm not going to say I'm copying their format, but that's kind of what it is. There's this restaurant in Copenhagen called Relae, it's a super small space. We walked in and they're playing Nirvana unplugged. The price point was approachable, but it was one of the best meals I've ever had. Almost like a bistro-esque kind of atmosphere. The new fine dining is kind of no-frills, not a lot of over-the-top service. There will still be very professional service, but a little bit more laidback.

What are some of your other inspirations?
I guess just from all the places that I've worked. Places that I've been. Definitely working at Komi, not saying I'm replicating that in any way or my food is going to be like that, but it definitely had a big influence in how I do food. And working at Town House. That's probably one of my biggest inspirations.

Working alongside John Shields is probably the most amazing experience ever. He's very much inspired by a lot of the same things, the inspired by nature thing that's been very popular. He's been doing it for awhile, but Noma and Mugaritz, they really kind of brought it to the main stage. Foraging. I'm not going to forage a lot of stuff. It's a little different in DC. You can do it. There's a lot of stuff that grows in the sidewalk that you can eat, but it also grows in the sidewalk. Urban foraging is possible, but not really our thing.

Also being down there in the middle of nowhere, Virginia, doing maybe 10-15 people a night and just really focusing on really unique and progressive food. But when I say modern American, it's not like there's foams and ridiculous stuff on the plate. Maybe four or five components on the plate at the most and it looks very simple. But all those components are so complex. I'm not going to say there's hidden technique, but you're not shoving technique in people's faces.

At one point did it start occurring to you that you should just start doing your own space?
It was kind of convenient. I got the call that [Town House wasn't] coming back. I still had a very good relationship with Erik so he put me in touch with Ari. I still have no idea how it happened or why it happened. But the conversation was started. I was moving back, they wanted to open a restaurant. It kind of made sense. The opportunity to do my own thing and have a small restaurant and figure out my style, it was an opportunity I didn't want to say no to.

What are some of the ideas for your opening menu?
Since we're going into the fall season, definitely utilizing a lot of the stuff I preserved. I love pickled stuff. It doesn't necessarily mean a pickled cucumber or something like that. But kind of that balance between sweet and acidic. Utilizing that and the vegetables we have available during the season. I'm going to be very focused on the season and what we have available during that time. Probably a lot of root vegetables.

Some of the dishes I've been working on for awhile, when we started doing popups and I threw some dishes together, I've been tweaking them. Some of the dishes I've done a couple times and I'm confident they're going to work out, but then all the other stuff I have written down, they're ideas that I've down and I understand how to do it, but I've never executed them before so I'm going to start doing my homework and doing some cooking out of my house. I've got pages upon pages of ideas. One of the first courses I want to do like six to seven types of vegetables and different preparations of each. Raw, pickled, roasted, brined.

So you're going to be pretty vegetarian-friendly?
Everyone says they hate vegetarians, but it seems kind of like vegetables are the new trend. I think it takes a lot to present vegetables on a tasting menu, to do that many different varieties of them. I don't want to say, no, we can't do vegetarians. It's kind of challenging. It'll definitely be a very vegetable-heavy menu. I've always liked vegetables and it kind of fits in. A lot of seafood too.

How about the pork bandwagon?
I'm not going to have pork belly on everything. It has to be balanced. I have a pork dish I want to do, but it's not like pork barbecue. I want it to be pork, but I don't want it to be heavy. I feel like a lot of people are trying to do super-heavy pork dishes. That's just not for me. And maybe using cuts that people don't typically use. But yeah, definitely not jumping on that bandwagon.

And so the plan is to open this fall?
Yeah. Our timeline is looking like we're going to be able to open by fall. We don't have an exact date just because there are still a lot of projects that have to be completed. I don't like to set unrealistic expectations. But definitely fall. Cross my fingers. It's realistic. I'm not worried about hitting any real big snags. I'm convincing myself in this conversation right now that we're going to open in the fall.

· S?na [Official Site]
· All Previous S?na Coverage [-EDC-]

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