Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sensing restaurant, Boston: Guy Martin didn't bring the stars

In late 2007, I came across a blog post that caused me to squeal: Guy Martin was opening a restaurant in Boston, scheduled for December of that year.

I kept watch on the news, set up Google Alerts and all but tied the anticipatory napkin around my neck.

Why the excitement? Here's the lore: Guy Martin started collecting awards in 1985, whe he got his first Michelin star. In 1991, he became chef of
Le Grand Véfour, a 200-year-old Parisian resto that has served Napoleon, Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Colette. Over the next ten years, he was named Best Chef of something-or-other on an annual basis, culminating with Le Grand Véfour's promotion to three Michelin stars in 2000.

February 2000 Salon piece notes the importance of this event:
The big news is that chef Guy Martin at Paris' historic Grand Véfour has earned a third Michelin star -- with no losses among 1999's 21-strong three-star lineup. Conspiracy theorists have long believed that for a chef to get a third Michelin star -- the guide's highest rating -- someone at the top has to die or be demoted, so that the total will stay at 21.
Perhaps now you understand my excitement.

Construction wasn't even close to complete by the end of '07. But in a Feb '08 Boston Globe interview, Guy Martin further whetted my appetite:
"Sensing will be a destination for those attracted by a beautiful, fine, and subtle cuisine ... I want my customers to taste the ingredients. To give you an example, there will be dishes like oysters in a jelly made with seawater, or a horseradish blanc mange."
The week before this interview ran, we had an amazing meal at Adour, the latest New York project from Alain Ducasse, himself a three-Mich-star chef (in three different countries).

I was psyched. Sensing was going to be just as good.

Finally, after a few small business ownership-type hiccups, Sensing opened this week in the Fairmont Battery Wharf in the North End. So we went.

And. Um. Okay, one thing at a time.

In the Globe interview, Guy Martin says, "I want colorful and vibrant décor with a modern and contemporary look ... I truly want to give my customers a unique experience, visually as well as emotionally."

"Colorful and vibrant" translates to blond wood wall paneling, blond wood tables, and blond wood chairs with blue sage upholstery. If this is a "unique experience" I assume M. Martin has never been to a Marriott.

The place looked like the restaurant in a 1980s hotel chain; I could imagine that at the end of the night, the waitstaff set out individual jars of ketchup and grape jelly to go with the next morning's Western omelettes and homefries.

I don't know whether this was the philosophy at Sensing or just our own waiter's approach, but what we got was a blend of half-Applebee's ("Hi-my-name-is-and-I'll-be-serving-you-this-evening") and half-steakhouse (The Boy was handed the wine list; all our choices were deemed "excellent"; I was addressed as "Miss").

Cocktails arrived halfway through the appetizers (though they were ordered before). Once our apps were cleared, we were asked if we'd like more bread, though we hadn't been given any to begin with. The dessert menu took a long time to arrive, and longer for anyone to circle back around to us. I'm hoping these are opening-week roadbumps, and will smooth out quickly.

The great: Cocktails. Mine was a Cilantro Sting, a lovely, light, fresh blend of muddled cilantro, Patron Silver tequila, vodka and lime juice, garnished with a slice of serrano pepper. It's best enjoyed slowly, so that the heat from the chili disperses gradually into the drink. I will be making this at home.

The Boy had a Lemon Smash: rye whiskey, lemon juice and mint, a nice take on a julep.

Also good was my entrée: a fantastically lean and juicy loin of lamb, crusted with peanuts and served with light, fluffy sweet-potato gnocchi tossed with arugula. The peanut crust provided a nice comfort-food crunch but wasn't quite generous enough to stand up to the flavor of the meat, but otherwise it was well executed and lovely.

The not-so-great: the Snacking Platter. This six-item sampler promised an inventive taste adventure.

Clockwise from noon: Wellfleet oyster with shallot mignonette; king crab in grapefruit jelly; duck foie gras crème brulée; smoked mussel with beets; cheese maki; and, in the center, Jerusalem artichoke soup with ras-el-hanout.

The oyster was perfect. The crab item held a faint hint of citrus and nothing more (certainly no crab). The crème brulée was creamy genius. The smokiness of the mussel played nicely against the sweet beet, though the square of beet jelly underneath was a chewy cypher.

The maki was exactly what you'd expect from a mild cheese paired with white rice; a bland, soft mouthful appropriate to feed to invalids.

And the soup, though comfortingly warm and rich, didn't give much sense of either girasole or spice complexity. Ras-el-hanout is one of my favorite blends but was barely distinguishable here.

The Boy ordered chicken—an unusual choice for him—but this was stuffed with smoked trout, which is certainly a departure from the mainstream. It's so hard to keep chicken breast moist, and even here it was dry, with the trout providing necessary moisture. It was an interesting experiment, but ultimately came off as no more exciting than smoked chicken.

A couple more notes, just because they bugged me: the wines by the glass were limited—four red, four white—and were mostly domestic (or, as it read on the wine list, from "Usa"). Really? A French-helmed resto that can only scare up a single Lalande de Pomerol?

The menus were listed on printer paper haphazardly glued onto card stock in a way that suggested cutting costs was more important than presentation. The drinks menu categories were "Cocktails," "Elegance," "Sublimation" and "Pure"—yes, very cool and hip, but can you just tell me where the wine is?

I didn't want to like Sensing. I wanted to fall in love with it, to be able to add it to the list along with L'Espalier and Raduis, with Rialto and Craigie. Given Guy Martin's résumé, Sensing should be the best restaurant in Boston; instead, it's on par with Rendezvous or Central Kitchen, except it costs twice as much.

I assume Martin did some research before coming here. I'm sure he didn't intend to half-ass Sensing on the premise that Boston isn't New York and the rubes wouldn't know any different. But that sad thing is that what he has created isn't on a par with Boston's best.

Sensing is not a bad restaurant. It isn't
Mercer Kitchen bad. But neither does it come across as scion-of-Michelin-star-genius good. At best, it's a reasonable hotel-chain restaurant.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was psyched about this place opening, but yours is the third review I've read that says theres nothing special about it. Maybe I'll wait for the patio to open, so at least theres a nice view.

10:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The patio doesn't have a view. It is couched between the hotel building and the other nondescript building without a name on it.

11:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

wow I wish I'd read your writeup before I went. They've changed a couple of tasting platter items but otherwise its about the same. So disappointing and not worth going back to

Andy O.

2:26 PM  
Anonymous S Lloyd said...

Great job of straightforward, accurate reviewing from your part. 1 yr after this review of yours, I might give it a try soon and see if things are a bit better than what I read.

1:47 PM  

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