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Senses Restaurant

Haute Cuisine at Neighborhood Prices

From the outside, the low-key, understated awning does not draw attention to Senses, a hot new Mission eatery located in the space formerly occupied by Watercress (and before that, Watergate). While friends have reported spotty service at Senses, many of the dishes here are on par with the haute cuisine of Restaurant Michael Mina, Frisson, and other super high-end restaurants -- but at a neighborhood price point. Notably, the small plates are more artful than plentiful, so Senses is not necessarily ideal for garrulous groups looking to share heaping plates à la Cha Cha Cha.

Executive Chef Sophiane Benaouda (of Chez Alain in Beirut, and trained by Chef Paul Bocuse) blends French techniques with typically Californian fresh, seasonal, organic ingredients, but the results are far more stunning than can be mustered by your average neighborhood bistro.

The main menu consists of hot and cold small plates with some entrees. On a recent visit, the chef sent out a gorgeous, silky beef and caviar treat on a soup spoon. After such an appealing appealing amuse bouche, we chose the beef carpaccio marinated in gravlax sauce, then wrapped around arugula ($8). The textures were satisfyingly crisp with tender beef strikingly presented on a simple black dish.

On a previous visit, the crab sampler plate ($10) was one of the most delicious, summery crab dishes we'd had. Ever. One corner of the plate held a load of fresh, juicy minted crab with little shreds of mango, while a disappointing length of breadstick was covered in an incredible mouillette of crab butter. A bright green shot of cucumber and chive jus complemented the dish and added a trendy, satisfying touch.

We enjoyed the mashed celery root topped with scallops and potato truffle crisps ($13), which paired the super soft celery root with surprisingly down-home, American-style crisps; a.k.a. fancy, homemade potato chips. On a previous visit, we went ape over a silky artichoke mousse layered with thin, melty slices of potato, although the promised black truffle accent was not discernable; perhaps it was too near the end of the season, but you'd think the kitchen would know this and adjust the menu accordingly. A preponderance of alfalfa sprouts used as garnish throughout the menu is puzzling, but cute.

A starter that had us licking our jam spoons was a little plate of little prawns on toothpicks, each set atop a bit of vibrant orange marmalade and served with a little shot of carrot-orange jus. Again, not really a dish that will fill you up or share all that well with a hungry table, but a lovely exercise in flavor and texture.

Moving through the small plates, a true standout was the croustillant of roasted bass with forest mushrooms wrapped in phyllo, deep fried, sliced and served with a meaty tasting (though vegetarian) shot of coriander/soy/ginger broth. The broth was so good we insisted on keeping it as a dip for little pieces of bread after the busser removed our share plates. The portions are small, but so intensely flavorful that a larger serving might have been overkill.

As for entrees, on one visit we selected the filet of sole stuffed with ginger confit ($17) and the filet of beef with pepper and mustard seed and potatoes glacee ($23). A surprise standout was the meat-and-potatoes entrée; the steak was tender and pungent, and the potatoes were silky, thinly sliced and sumptuous. The filet of sole was altogether more delicate; rolled into a log with a delectable confit in the middle.

On another trip we shared a perfectly cooked rack of lamb with eggplant puree and olives, but we found it unfortunate that only one bone was provided, thus robbing one of us of the chance to gnaw the delectable sinews from the bone -- half the fun for finger-licking foodie types.

Throughout our first meal at Senses, the service was dependably helpful with charming, knowledgeable interjections from the more senior wait staff and brief breaks between courses. We were surprised to hear of long waits and other not-so-great experiences from friends, but on a second visit in fact had a server who didn't really seem to know the menu. So they have a little work to do in the service department.

At dessert, we fell for the chestnut lava cake with cardamom ice cream ($8) and the lavender blanc mange with blackberry coulis ($8). The lava cake did, in fact, appeal to all the senses; dense, liquid, generous and paired with a wonderfully aromatic and spicy cardamom ice cream. After the lava cake, the blanc mange was beautiful and satisfying but not stellar.

Sporting an appealing, redesigned interior with palm, coconut and bamboo accents, the layout features warm brown banquettes, an exhibition kitchen, and a chic middle bar table with tall chairs. Designed by Dava Guthmiller of Noise 13 (Limon, Circolo) and Dan Donovan, the space is a marked improvement on the staid array of four-tops that once dotted an otherwise bland, rectangular room when the space was occupied by Watergate.

Senses should succeed if service issues can be ironed out and the ubiquitous "tapas" identity that plagues small plates restaurants can be skirted. The restaurateurs' goal should be to promote an understanding that Senses delivers a stunning downtown foodie experience in a neighborhood-chic environment that is less expensive than the big guns downtown where $38 entrees are the rule, not the exception.

French-influenced California Cuisine