The room, once the home of the rather lackluster French-like Monte Cristo, now down for the count, hadn't changed at all. There were the oddly Flintstonesian rocks punctuating the rough wood walls, the slightly surrealistic hand-holding light sconces, the big windows overlooking the Ferry Building with the Bay Bridge twinkling behind it. Upscale ski lodge was the general feeling.
But the menu of the recently named Sens restaurant was new and intriguing, its Southern Mediterranean (Turkish, North African, and Greek) influences, favorites of executive chef Michael Dotson, lending allure and exciting our appetites. The large, creamy menu page was covered with big, dense print: 14 starters, three salads, 10 main courses, and seven desserts, all followed by a line or two listing ingredients, resulting in sheer poetry as far as I was concerned. Grilled octopus, shaved fennel, Rancho Gordo beans, mint sharmula; pickled sardines, avocado toast, radish, mace brown butter; Za'tar braised lamb shank, pearl couscous, roasted turnips, almond-parsley salad. And some fascinating wording: Moorish spices, sweet herbs. I mentally tried out flavor combinations, surprised by more unfamiliar ingredients than I've seen in some time. What were manouri, vitelloni, graviera, briam, trahana? I wanted to try everything.
But we were only three, at a late dinner, sitting at a divine window table on a rather echoey, almost-empty night. We did our best, starting with lamb meatballs ("aromatic spices, foie gras, cherry-tomato mostarda"), grilled vitelloni tongue (vitelloni, it turns out, is year-old veal, also known as baby beef), stuffed squid, and Turkish flatbread. The kitchen's best were the tender, rather delicate meatballs, three golf-ball-sized beauties in which the foie gras was invisible; and the squid, plumped by their sweetish stuffing of spinach, bulgur wheat, pine nuts, and golden raisins, and improved by their bed of fresh and also-sweet tomato sauce. The slippery-soft tongue, more texture than flavor, was paired with firm yellow-eye beans. These were new to me, much like soissons and apparently much in favor for baked beans, perked up with the acidic touches of green olives and preserved lemons. The flatbread was oddly soggy rather than crisp, and its topping of Sonoma Crescenza cheese, braised greens, chopped walnuts, and caramelized onions was rather obscured by too much of a musty spice mixture. We turned away an unordered dish of grilled octopus, but it was returned to us with the unexpected information that it was a gift from the pastry chef, an acquaintance of one of my two companions. The octopus, at least the tentacles that I tried, were clumsily grilled, rubbery, and overcooked, unworthy of the mint sharmula (a Moroccan dressing), Rancho Gordo beans, and fennel they were paired with.
My reaction to our main courses was also uneven. I adored the fat manti, firm ravioli-like Turkish dumplings stuffed with a smooth, seductive autumn squash and chestnut puree, anointed with tangy garlicky yogurt, and sided with caramelized cauliflower and translucent cipollini onions — the best dish of the evening, I thought. I liked the classic Middle Eastern kebab and kefta (spiced ground beef, like a fresh sausage) combination, although not as rarefied in flavor as the description of "grilled aged sirloin kebab and filet kefta" led me to expect. It came on a bed of lovely fluffy couscous, improved with dried apricots, marjoram, and a dash of Metaxa, the Greek brandy/wine blend, with sautéed oyster mushrooms — this plate, like the manti, was cleaned. We all approved of the presentation of the fat Wolfe Ranch quail, whole rather than disjointed, on a bed of escarole, merguez sausage, and fingerling potatoes, surrounded by littleneck clams in the shell. But the dish proved to be just that, an assemblage rather than a combination, the disparate elements never really coming together, and the somewhat metallic-tasting clams not harmonizing with the bird the way they can in Spanish preparations with pork. The wine list, put together by Saeed Amini, is exceedingly interesting, even in the offerings by the glass.
The dessert menu is one of the most intriguing, unusual, and inventive I've ever seen. We ordered three sweets, and were served four — the fourth one not only a gift from the phantom pastry chef, but also named "pistachio gift." The recurring theme was that these sweets were not really sweet at all, but subtly exciting in their sophisticated pairings of texture and flavor. The masterpiece was "lemon essence," a citrus soufflé propped up on thin fennel shortbread and sided with tart lemon sherbet and a dazzling, jewel-like assemblage of assorted citrus and a relish of pine nuts and dates with anise and Arbequina olive oil. "Warm chocolate" was a firm chocolate cake with cardamom ice cream and the optimistically named "Shuna's famous dark chocolate sauce." The pistachio gift was a lovely toasted take on baklava, with mastic-rosewater ice cream that I found overperfumed. The only inexplicable arrangement was an underflavored, slightly grainy butterscotch pot de crème that didn't mate well with its companions: a warm apple crepe, a beautifully silky-textured and evocative long pepper cream (the long pepper hotter and more fragrant than the traditional black peppercorn, but elusive in flavor), and a smear of honeyed lebne, a yogurt cheese. The pastry chef, Shuna Fish Lydon, writes a popular food blog called Eggbeater. A casual perusal reveals that her opening dessert menu featured poetic names for her creations, now gone, such as "first blush." Her prose is questing, thoughtful, interesting, and quirky, like her food.
I return for lunch and am somewhat stunned to prefer this meal to dinner; not usually the case, but then lunch is a livelier, busier scene here in what is, after all, a massive office complex atop fancy shops. My friends are already ensconced in a comfy leather loveseat and chairs with a cozy view, picking at a dish of fabulous assorted olives drenched in good oil, and a plate of fluffy ricotta, which is improved with a sprinkle from the small dish of sea salt alongside. I'm flustered from the effort of finding parking, and order a Lemon Drop: cold vodka, Gewürtztraminer grape juice, lemon, powdered sugar. It's icy and revivifying. We share roasted beets — red, gold, and chioggia— topped with sesame-crusted cubes of rather bland manouri cheese, and try to order avgolemono soup, but the soup of the day comes instead: a deep-flavored dark mushroom broth in which float chanterelles, barley, baby leeks, and sesame dumplings.
My mouth now waters, remembering my Tabil lamb burger, soft and savory under its blanket of feta, harissa aioli, and coriander-onion confit, the whole enfolded by a pillowy brioche bun and sided with hot-spiced french fries. Just as delicious were the wood-oven-roasted chicken meatballs, made with thigh meat, surrounded by saffroned pearl couscous, sweet peppers, and fennel in a little round metal casserole. The sea bass stifado was stewed with fat Gulf prawns, clams, and mussels, scented with preserved sweet limes and the exciting seasonal accent of cardoons. I was less enamored of our two vegetable sides: the briam, which turned out to be a rather ordinary baked layering of seasonal squash and onion; and chewy, underspiced spinach falafel, nicely dressed with chopped cucumbers in yogurt. We shared an exceedingly reasonable carafe ($18) of a light, fresh white wine from the Alto Adige.
Again with the gifts! This time it was because one of my friends, who works in Embarcadero 4, is already a lunch regular — he'd dined there the day before, was returning on the morrow — and it was his birthday. So we got a semolina cake with rosemary-caramel ice cream and hazelnuts; a chocolate panna cotta atop a firm sesame cake; and my favorite, a poached pear with a buckwheat cake and brown butter crème anglaise. The barely sweetened, unusually textured little cakes are three variations on a rarely seen theme.
Sens, in French, means meaning. My sense of the place is that I mean to return.