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Sens-ational? It's Getting There...

Note: This review was published before extensive kitchen staff changes occurred in March 2008.

Sens, which opened in October 2007 in the grotto-like Embarcadero Center space formerly occupied by the underwhelming Monte Cristo Cafe, serves Southern Mediterranean food using -- what else? -- local, sustainable, and seasonal ingredients. Think lamb, seafood, citrus, and olives.

It’s the creation of executive chef and partner Michael Dotson, who moved up to the city from Evvia Estiatorio, the well-regarded Greek restaurant in Palo Alto.

The huge restaurant sits awkwardly on the hard-to-find “Promenade Level” of Embarcadero Four, but benefits from eastward views toward the Ferry Building and the bay. The interior is burdened by heavy rough stone and a ceiling ribbed with thick wooden beams.

This overblown rusticity can be traced to the heavy hands of Pat Kuleto, who designed the space for the initial resident, Italian restaurant Splendido. The location and design isn’t horrible, just a bit disorienting, like “I just walked by a trinket shop in a mall and now I'm in a medieval basement with views of the Kristi Yamaguchi Holiday Ice Rink?”

The crowd is distinctly business-tourist, comprised mainly of referrals from the adjoining Hyatt's concierge desk no doubt, as well as suits from the EC towers above. A few young dating couples here and there round out the scene.

The menu reads beautifully, and pairs exciting ingredients like veal tongue with preserved lemon; lamb chops with quince. The ingredients were lovely: the proximity to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market shows.

But on an early visit, the dishes were widely inconsistent. That veal tongue ($10), served with cranberry beans and olives and the aforementioned preserved lemon, was a tender pleasure to my human tongue. The halibut ($22), on the other hand, was overcooked and under-seasoned.

Given a few more weeks to settle in, the kitchen has begun to shine more brightly. Savory lamb meatballs ($12) work well in a cherry tomato mostarda, while deep fried ovals of sea bass kofte pair delightfully with rich, smoked yogurt sauce.

Entrees, too, are faring better: a whole roasted branzino ($29) with citrus and fennel was excellent on a recent visit, and a double-cut, grilled lamb chop ($32) was perfectly charred medium rare and succulent, with braised dandelion greens and a genius little square of moussaka.

Sommelier Saeed Amini, hailing from Michael Mondavi Golden Vine Winery, Cetrella and Kokkari, is in the process of assembling a notable wine list, which already includes obscure masters like the Loire Valley's Didier Dagueneau. However, a particularly cloying carafe of "seasonal" rosé made more than one palate squirm.

Desserts under opening pastry chef Shuna Lydon ranged from bland to completely sublime (the frozen honey mousse with pine nut relish will be missed with her February 2008 departure); replacing her (after the time of this review) is pastry chef Kelly Fields of esteemed New Orleans restaurants Spice, Inc. and August.

In scale and cuisine, Sens evokes Kokkari, but falls short of Kokkari’s stylish rusticity and consistent execution. It’s weighed down by ponderous decor and an awkward setting, but enlivened by a lovely menu with spots of brilliance. First impressions weren't stellar, but it's much more worth a visit now that things have settled.

Southern Mediterranean

Reservations Essential? No.