It's always interesting to taste someone's food. It becomes more interesting when you've shared a meal or two with them, and even more so when you read them regularly. On our last ill-starred trip to the city (yes, there's more than than getting sick) we had dessert at Sens, new home of Shuna Lydon.
We rode the cable car from our beroached Indian dinner, to our car parked downtown, on the way passing a display of HUGE Christmas ornaments in front of a downtown building. The Sardine pointed and said, "Bubble." Indeed, they looked like giant red bubbles.
One of the biggest problems facing Sens, like Splendido, and the Monte Cristo, before it, is visibility and signage. Unless, you absolutely know where you're going, you wont find it. There is a small, barely visible sign on the Embarcadero side, but I don't think it's going to do much to bring people in. Also the Embarcadero Centers are singularly ugly buildings that don't invite strolling, browsing, or otherwise discovering. So, they will have to create significant buzz. I've read they've hired a muscular PR firm, so hope that does the trick.
It was lovely to come off the escalator and immediately see Shuna's space. Bright, clean, organized and festively, but subtly decorated. I got to get a peek at her
Rolls Royce ice cream machine through the window. The restaurant itself is lovely, a welcome change from the Embarcadero Center and it looks like they've kept most of the decorative elements from Splendido intact, which allowed them to make a pretty good impression for less money than completely redesigning the place.
Our host was gracious and gigantic. When we asked for Shuna, he wasn't sure if she was still there and asked if it would make a difference whether we stayed. I assured him it wouldn't, she is after all, pastry chef, not pastry cook. The food will be the same whether she is there or not.
It was late, so there were only two other tables in the restaurant. A relief for us since we didn't know how The Sardine would fare.
The house started us out with two tiny scoops of sorbet; green apple and plum, though the green apple was more the consistency of granita, which it might have been. Our server perhaps wasn't clear. While I was pleased to see Latinos as waiters, ours wasn't doing the house any favors with his pronunciations, like prounouncing the "t" in pot de creeeem. He also was a bit of the used car salesman. When the GM asked him for his favorite on the savory menu, he listed every dish, describing each as "fabulous" or "amazing". While I'm nit-picking, note to the house. Your wine lists are almost as big as the deuces and really awkward. There's no room to put them on the table.
I loved the green apple, the Sardine was having none of either. Having a hard time choosing among the desserts, we tried the
vanilla phyllo wrapped pistachio frangipane
with mastic-rosewater ice cream
slow roasted hazelnuts, supple semolina, rosemary-caramel ice cream
& candied valencia orange
honey-cumin pot de creme
& heirloom apple-walnut-white fig salad
and a special that the GM was really into and so I didn't really get to try and can't tell you much about.
So let me say that I was disappointed to read that Sens decided to take the poetry off the menu and go for more straightforward descriptions of the desserts. I know why they did it, but think they should've kept it. Because Shuna is at heart, a poet. A poet with a palette. She may front off as a drill sergeant to her crew but she don't fool me.
Being a poet, some of her combinations and flavors are subtle and even when she's being bold she's restrained and elegant. My favorite of all the desserts was the cumin pot de creme. The plating was impeccable, modern but not contrived, monochromatic but not stark, and for me, the dessert with the boldest flavors. I didn't get so much rosemary in the rosemary caramel for example, although the GM (who is more sensitive to rosemary than I) did. I also don't remember any candied orange, but it was a rough couple of days afterwards and my memory may be faulty.I'm not sure what mastic tastes like so I'm not sure if I tasted any mixed in the rosewater.
I'm looking forward to going back and seeing the desserts in the context of an entire meal there. Seeing how the savory elements repeat, conclude and accent the meal. Seeing if the plating of the main courses is as well-thought out. Seeing the context.
When we left Sens and hit the street The Sardine looked up and said "Bubble. Where is she?" throwing up his hands. We walked him a few blocks back to the ornaments, marveling that his tiny mind kept that thought for the hour or so we were having dessert, loving each other and full of the spirit of the season.