Some things cross my mind while I wait for my steak at Sensi: The sunset behind the skyline is gorgeous. Apricot and gold. I'm glad that on this trip we get a table near the window, though it was just as empty last time. Why didn't they seat us over here? There goes another coal train rattling south to the fires at Dominion Virginia Power.
This waiter is gifted. Too few servers know how to be friendly without trying to make friends. He's a pro. I wonder how he makes a living with business so slow. That chain-mail curtain is cool. What the heck could they possibly be doing to that steak? I ordered it medium rare.
When my wife leans into the table and says, “Let's play the game,” it's like a timer going off. Things in the kitchen are slow if we're suddenly looking around a restaurant pondering what we'd change if we owned it (“There but for the grace of God…”).
Much about Sensi is right on. The location is enviable. Sure, Tobacco Row is rich with high-end options and people are less eager to spend a great deal on a single meal. But the atmosphere along the completed canal stretch of the Capital Bike Trail is exciting. There's some street life. It feels like city. And while Millie's, the Boathouse and Bookbinders are competition, they also make the neighborhood a destination for dining, which helps everyone.
But I have to say, given that list of options, after the first trip to Sensi I would have chosen to eat at one of its neighbors instead of the requisite second visit. There isn't any obvious failing. Most of the dishes taste good and show culinary skill. The service is good; one night it was great. But the energy of the place is just bored. From atmosphere to menu it feels as if somewhere along the way, someone got bored.
The heart of the restaurant is luxurious, with tall windows framing brick and oak and sky, but the entrance lacks styling and the back half of the dining room is cavernous and dark with exposed prep areas and disjointed art.
The food tastes good, but three hours from start to finish is uncomfortable for a modern meal, and excruciating in a hollow dining room. On each of my visits the other diners are scattered around the vast space, preventing any sense of happening. And — insult to injury — the music is bad. Give me classical or rock, give me reggae or country. Give me anything intentional, anything that sets a mood. Just please don't give me ambient noise.
As for the menu, if it were my place I'd revise this way: Drop the fusion. Lower the prices. Focus on the Italian chop house and handmade pasta. Use all that time in the kitchen to roll the gnocchi off the fork. Lose the tuna and all that Asian influence. Yes, it's cool to preserve your own ginger, but when you add it to what I think may have been a great espagnole it tastes a lot like cheap teppanyaki, and when the maitre d' melts butter into it you get muddled, not fusion. Instead, keep it simple and clean. For 30 bucks customers hope to taste 30 bucks worth of steak.
So, that's what I'd do. Of course, I don't wish I was back on the other side of the restaurant world — certainly not in this economic climate. My hat goes off to all owners who ring the bell, make the money and adapt with the times: locally sourcing, everything made in house, simple, clean lines. The owners of Sensi have an abundance of assets. There's every reason for the place to thrive. And the downturn might be just the time for a shock to the system, a shake-up to getting the energy flowing. Or so I am thinking, while I wait for my steak.
Finally. Here comes my food. No. Nooo. That table was sitting here when I arrived and they're just getting entrees. Heaven help me.
Sensi Italian Chop House $$$
2222 E. Cary St.
Dinner and lounge nightly