LOVIN’ HALF A DOZEN: The “Sensing Snacking Platter” allows diners to choose six appetizer items, including local oysters and lobster parfait.
I've enjoyed the revival of 1950s-style French bistros, but it's been quite a while since I could review a full-tilt example of 1980s French "nouvelle cuisine," which brought on bipolar reform. On the one hand, it asserted the slow-food locavore conservatism of the French mind; on the other, it exaggerated the extraordinary love of the artificial that runs through French culture. Sensing's executive chef, Gerard Barbin, under the guidance of three-star consulting chef Guy Martin, has gestured in both directions, doctoring fresh, local ingredients into small, highly composed dishes. One arises from a full-course dinner satisfied and not overstuffed, though the flavors are subtle, even pastel, and some are lost altogether.
|Sensing | 3 Battery Wharf (Fairmont Battery Wharf Hotel), Boston | 617.994.9001 | Open monday–friday, 6:30–11 am, 11:30 am–1:30 pm, and 5:30–10 pm; and saturday and sunday, 6:30–11 am, 10:30 am–2:30 pm (brunch), and 5:30–10 pm | AE, DC, DI, MC, VI | full bar | street-level access | valet parking, $12|
We started our meal happily with hot, rectangular white (or even better, whole-grain) rolls and salted butter. For appetizers, it's difficult to get past the "Sensing Snacking Platter" ($16) consisting of six items: a local oyster with shallots and vinegar; a tiny mille-feuille sandwich of carrot with a spiced filling; an eensy "éclair" of guacamole topped with a rectangle of alleged passion-fruit leather (too small to taste); two splendid micro-croquettes of potato and Stilton with prosciutto on top; an asparagus shooter as rich as chocolate milk (my favorite); and a lobster "parfait" of jelly, lobster mousse, and fresh tiny peas (too much to take in). You can have all or any combination.
Spring pea and lemongrass soup with parmesan foam ($10) tasted wonderfully of fresh peas and perhaps pea tendrils. Our server brought us a bowl filled with black-trumpet mushrooms and then poured the soup over the filling. Since the soup was served cold, nothing was lost by this folderol. A potentially cliché appetizer of seared ahi tuna ($16) was a winner: sushi-grade fish with a slightly grilled crust, served over a beautiful salad.
Although Martin is the author of a vegetable cookbook, all the vegetarian dishes here are listed as appetizers. Still, there are enough options when combined for any vegan to have a good time, and the large "Green Risotto" ($12/small; $16/large) with fava purée, asparagus, and spinach even works as an entrée. It's not too rich or cheesy, but was a little over-salted on our night.
Cod steamed in lemongrass ($26) may become a signature dish for this restaurant. Given a local fish of mild flavor, the French chefs here have put in a light touch of southeast Asia, a hint of grapefruit and coconut that doesn't rise up to notice, and a mélange of seasonal vegetables, including a radish or small turnip. You don't get the symphony of flavors that you might enjoy in a French bouillabaisse — more like chamber music such as develops in a Japanese hot pot — but it's still quite nice. Arctic char ($25) was less successful. It's one of my favorite fish, but isn't local and one piece tasted better than the other. Both were topped with shaved slices of baby artichoke and a lemon confit/Marcona almond foam, none of which really brought out the sweetness of the char, nor any flavor of their own.
If you're uncertain whether you enjoy nouvelle cuisine, the top sirloin of veal ($28) is a good test. The cut is lean and tender but not deeply flavored, and the mustard sabayon sauce is subtler and less rich than a classical treatment, like hollandaise or béarnaise. Sautéed ramps and black trumpets function as flavor accents more than garnishes. With our entrées, the chef sent out a sort of lagniappe of puréed beet with shaved ramp and melon and a sweet pickle of celery or lovage.
Subtle foods are often friends to fine wines, and Sensing has a lovely list, about half French with some American and world options. They're all fairly expensive and marked up. The real find for us was one of the cheapest glasses, a 2005 Tangley Oaks chardonnay ($9). I expected steel-tank, fruity California chard at this price. But it was as tart as a real French Chablis, with just a measure of oak in the aftertaste.
Decaf coffee ($4) is well made. Tea ($4) comes in a variety of flavors, unfortunately packaged as bags, which means brewing anxiety. A shot of espresso ($5) was thin and burnt.