Depth Perception 

Trains, orchids and succulent veal give Sensi its multifaceted flavor.

Adding to the warehouse look are freight trains, visible through the front windows, which periodically rumble by on an ancient trestle that towers over the nearby canal and river.

At too many of the tables in the 115-seat room, the lighting, suspended from the ceiling, is more appropriate for Costco than intimate dining.

The noise inside, however, is kept at a discreet level — jazz playing softly on the sound system, wait staff moving silently across burgundy carpet and quiet conversations from nicely spaced tables.

One dissonant sound results from another sense, touch. The stemware is so top-heavy that, on one recent visit, three glasses broke in the dining room because they had either fallen off a waiter's tray and or been tipped over by a diner.

Of course, the most important senses in a restaurant are taste and smell, and on those counts, Sensi passes with flying colors — except for the annoying smoke that filters through the metal curtain into the dining room from the 45-seat lounge (we moved to a far corner).

Sensi is the creation of Paulo and Rhonda Randazzo, whose Franco's Ristorante has been a staple of fine dining in the West End for nearly two decades.

Paulo, a native of Sicily, does most of the cooking, although he still spends time at Franco's. At the Sensi stove full time is sous-chef Paul Hubbard.

Whereas Franco's is solidly Italian, the new venture, befitting its location, is more cosmopolitan.

Entrees, from $20 to $29, include a whole Maine lobster with salmon caviar; black grouper; king salmon; several cuts of steak; chicken from an Amish farm; and veal and lamb chops.

A "Frenched" veal chop is 12 ounces of succulent meat bathed in brown butter, topped with capers and accented with crispy garlic chips.

Black grouper — or rockfish when available — sprinkled with green Turkish peppercorns, basil and a brown salsa mustard cream, was very chewy.

While the emphasis is on nouvelle cuisine, fans of Franco's who make the journey from the suburbs seeking Italian fare won't be disappointed. There are seven pasta offerings ($17-$21), and they are not your nonna's recipes from the old country.

The ravioli is filled with lump crabmeat from the Chesapeake Bay; oyster mushrooms come with bacon and goat cheese over penne; littleneck clams in olive oil arrive on a bed of linguine; Maine lobster and salmon grace hand-cut fettuccine.

Starters ($8-$14.50) include lobster bisque and wild mushroom soup and antipasti ranging from the usual standbys — fried calamari, buffalo mozzarella, crab cake and bruschetta — to hot and cold seafood combos.

The crab cake was light and airy, accented with prosciutto and melon, while stringy oyster mushrooms in a mushroom and cheese offering were difficult to chew.

Sautéed spinach stands out among half a dozen side dishes ($4-$5.50) that include two kinds of potato, roasted root vegetables, asparagus and a risotto of the day.

Desserts ($8-$10) range from sorbet, tiramisu and profiteroles to a trio of the chef's choice.

All of the food was enhanced by beautiful presentations, served on tables decorated with a long-stemmed orchid.

Sensi may just be the right place at the right time, with droves of young singles and dinks (double income, no kids) moving into the growing number of apartments and condos nearby, including five floors' worth above the restaurant in the River Lofts, formerly called The Carolina.

The mid-November opening of Sensi, combined with its equally upscale neighbors Bookbinders and Millie's, plus a Starbucks, may represent the critical mass needed to transform the landscape of apartments-in-warehouses into a thriving neighborhood that will justify the area's trendy name, the River District. S

2222 E. Cary St.
Dinner: Monday-Thursday, 5-10:30 p.m.;
Friday and Saturday, 5-11 p.m.
(Opening on Sundays soon.)


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