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May 09, 2011

Sens

Sweet Soya Chicken Yakiniku Dominic Armato

I hope I don't regret this.

Not the photos (extremely dim, multicolored light... ack). Rather, the content of this post. I have no compunction about writing something less than complimentary. Praise means nothing if it's given by default, and I feel compelled to be straightforward. But at the same time, I try to point out the good and be constructive - or at least intelligent and/or informed -- with my criticism. I don't ever want to go down the road of those who take pleasure in tearing a place down. But after hitting Johnny Chu's Sens twice over the past couple of weeks, I find myself in the rare position of having almost nothing positive to say about a place that's been very well-received, and I'm having a hard time deciding how to approach this post. I guess what I'm trying to say is that there's an important discussion to be had here, and if somebody has to be a big jerk to kick it off... well, I don't enjoy it, but I guess that big jerk might as well be me.

Johnny Chu is a big name on the Phoenix food scene, having opened (and closed) a number of Asian restaurants in recent years, most recently Tien Wong, which I mostly liked except for a frustrating, fatal flaw. But I saw enough good in Tien Wong that I was genuinely looking forward to sampling the offerings at Sens, Chu's late-night sake bar and Asian small plates joint, which has received an awful lot of love from the press. But now I find myself wondering if there's been some recent, drastic change, or if I'm somehow walking into Sens' sister restaurant, Bizarro Sens, just around the corner, because Sens is the kind of schlocky, poorly-executed, clumsy Asian fusion joint that as a nation I thought we'd gotten over a decade ago. In the early '90s, it wouldn't have been good, but at least it would have been novel. Now, it's just... well... enough of this. Forget the history, forget the decor, forget the lighting and service and the seating and the drinks and the hours and let's just focus on what's important... the food. I'll elaborate later.

Soup GyozaDominic Armato

The runaway best dish of the eight I tried was the soup gyoza, and given that this was far and away the best, you'll quickly see why I'm so frustrated by this place. Chu's soup gyoza, which have gotten a ton of love, are basically a play on xiao long bao, a Shanghaiese specialty for which I have an awful lot of love. First off, they aren't gyoza. Not by any definition I've ever seen. Gyoza are a specific type of dumpling with a specific shape. So why call them gyoza? Because the word looks cool on a menu? I can't think of any other reason. They're xiao long bao. Sort of. I'm not the least bit anti-fusion when it's done well, but even taken for what they are, these are okay at best. The wrapper's too thick and gummy, which actually isn't unusual for XLB in the States (good ones are terribly difficult to come by except in a few geographical pockets). But then the fact that half of them stuck to the plate, spilling their juice before I could even get them to my mouth, is doubly frustrating. They're usually served atop a slice of some vegetable for a reason. Here, they're swimming in sauce. Which is (I'm fairly certain) a rice vinegar, soy and sesame oil mix rather than the traditional black vinegar. Need it be traditional? No. But this sauce was too aggressive, too acrid, too abundant. The one touch I really liked was that rather than having slivered ginger in the sauce, he had slices inside the dumpling itself, and they took on a really pleasing texture, steamed enough to blunt their sharper nature, and possessed of the faintest vegetal crunch, almost like lotus root. That was a great idea, and if he'd simply done that and left the rest alone, this would have been a great dumpling. As it was, it was poorly executed and way too busy.

Wasabi TofuDominic Armato

Another dish that was marginally successful was the wasabi tofu, cut into thick wedges, deep fried and served with a wasabi dipping sauce. What worked was the tofu itself, dipped in batter before being deftly fried, leaving a light, crispy exterior and a soft and supple core. But the good ended there. It was topped with a bit of fried minced garlic, which was welcome, but it was just dying for salt. And the dipping sauce was messy, a thick and cloying soy concoction of some nature with a drizzle of wasabi on top. There was no balance, nothing distinct about it... it was a nondescript vehicle for sweet with a little wasabi on top. This would become a theme. As with a special one night, a fried pork and shrimp dumpling with two dipping sauces. Why there needs to be two dipping sauces for six dumplings, I'm not sure, especially when each is enough for a dozen. But setting that aside, again, there's a little positive here. Though I wasn't getting any shrimp flavor in the filling, the pork was nicely seasoned... perhaps a little delicately so for a deep fried wonton. But that didn't matter because the dipping sauces were clumsy and overpowering. The first was the same as with the tofu, above. The second was described as a pineapple dipping sauce, and there was certainly some in it, but it had been reduced to a sickly, cloying goo with a muddy flavor, topped with ground peanuts and a spoonful of sambal. It was the kind of stuff that results from a "just add more" mentality... more sweetness, more fruit, more spice, more soy, until it's just a mess of poorly balanced, indistinct flavors.

Pork and Shrimp DumplingsDominic Armato

Balance was the biggest problem, though not the only one, with the green papaya salad. Balance is the very cornerstone of the Southeast Asian traditions from which this dish derives. Spicy, salty, sour, sweet... one may shuffle to the fore, but the key is for all four of them to be present, recognizable and work harmoniously with the others. But this was as though dumbed down for the stereotypically American palate, lots of sweet and spicy with a lot less sour and not a whiff of salty - fish sauce or otherwise - to be found. When you take an ethnic dish and yank out its soul, what you're left with is flat and lifeless, which is what this salad was. And the problems didn't end there. Rather than being pounded with the seasonings (often done with a big mortar and pestle), it's as though the salad was quickly tossed with a far too thin dressing, resulting in almost naked vegetables and a big pool of off-balance liquid in the bottom of the bowl. Unceremoniously toss a few grilled shrimp on top that didn't appear to have gotten anywhere near the other seasonings, and the flavor is not only off, but it's lazily assembled to boot. Other technical problems abounded. Five spice quail could have been such a nice, simple respite from the messy flavor onslaught of the rest of the menu. Ignore the naked shredded cabbage with drizzle of mystery ultrasweet dressing on one end of the plate, and what you have is quail dusted with five spice and salt and fried. It could be so simple and delicious! Except that it was badly overdone. Admittedly, there's a high degree of difficulty here. Quail are small and lean. But I've had plenty of juicy, succulent quail in my day, and this wasn't just a little overdone. It was really, really unpleasantly dry.

Green Papaya SaladDominic Armato

A large section of the menu is devoted to yakiniku, most simply described, a Japanese style of grilled meats over charcoal. And a couple of the worst offenders came from that grill. Korean short rib is billed as "marinated rib grilled with aromatic wood charcoal," and it's short rib, all right - flanken-cut, very thin - but it's difficult to identify as Korean and even more difficult to identify as having been grilled. Think about meat grilled over wood or charcoal. What makes it great? The char, the oozing juiciness, caramelized sauce, smoky flavor - all things that are imparted by high heat and the accompanying smoke. This had none of those. These were sad, spongy, flaccid little strips of meat with no texture or char flavor of any kind. If there was any smoke, it was completely obliterated by the sticky sweet sauce in which the meat had been doused, seemingly after it was grilled since it hadn't tightened up or caramelized at all and was served borderline cold. The only clue that the meat had gotten anywhere near a grill was some visible marks, but man, you sure couldn't taste them. And even if the meat had those smoky qualities when it left the grill, it sure didn't once it hit the table. To me, this is just a fundamental lack of respect for what you're doing. Japanese yakiniku looks nice on a menu. Great. But what's the point of grilling meat over charcoal if you're going to slather it in so much sauce that you can't even tell?

Five Spice QuailDominic Armato

Similarly grilled sweet soy chicken was even worse. Look at the photo. But for a couple tiny specks of black, would you ever have guessed that it was cooked over an open flame? I know it was. I watched them cook it. Yet it tasted like it had been baked in the oven for an hour, and I say an hour because while I probably have, I can't recall ever having had a piece of chicken that dry and rubbery. Really, just awful. I don't even know how you do that! How do you cook chicken over an open flame so that it completely loses all of its moisture yet doesn't pick up the slightest bit of char? The only explanation I can come up with is that it's completely parcooked and then tossed on the grill for a little symbolic smoke. And if true, again, what's the point other than to look good on a menu? Moreover, the glaze had no character, and the basil dipping sauce was a mess. In fact, I'm pretty sure it was the same as one of the other dipping sauces above, just with some chopped fresh basil on top. Another overly sweet, muddy mess. Plus fresh basil.

Korean Short RibDominic Armato

All of these issues - technical problems, muddy flavors, sweet upon sweet upon sweet, lack of balance - conspired together to make the fried white fish with spicy basil sauce the hardest to eat. It was a sizeable piece of fish, battered and fried, slathered in sauce and topped with chopped basil and peanuts. Where to start? 'Round these parts we tend to keep our fried fish dry so that we can maximize its crunch, but there's plenty of precedent for frying and then saucing in a number of Asian traditions, particularly with fish. It's not meant to add crunch, but rather a kind of body, some additional muscular texture. But you still have to start with a good coating, and this assuredly wasn't. It was just mushy and slimy, and the fish within was overcooked and dry. The bigger issue, however, was the sauce, which was a remarkably unpleasant slap in the face, flavor turned up to eleven with half a cup of sugar, except without the slightest bit of balance of subtlety. I like big flavors. No, I love big flavors. But when Asia goes big, it does so either by keeping flavors clean and pure (think teriyaki), or by balancing them very, very carefully (think curry). This was neither. It was a mess of flavors that were all out of whack, no balance, no composition... just volume. And a pile of herbs and peanuts (another crutch the restaurant seems to employ... just throw peanuts on everything).

Fried White Fish with Basil SauceDominic Armato

This is a rant. I know it's a rant. It's a terrible rant in which I take no pleasure, but it's one I feel compelled to let out because there's an important point here and I can't think of a better example with which to make it. Sens is Exhibit A for contemporary ethnic cuisine gone wrong, a failure of both conception and execution. These dishes utilize the ingredients and some of the techniques, but they've been stripped of the wisdom and spirit of the cuisines from which they're derived. It isn't enough just to put soy, ginger, sesame and pork on the same plate. You have to do so in a way that makes them sing rather than scream, and countless chefs with eons of experience between them have already done most of the legwork for you. This is why I so often place such value on straight-up traditional ethnic foods. To understand why the dishes at places like Sens don't work, you have to understand why the traditional ones do and have for centuries. Admittedly, this can be tricky business. Phoenix doesn't have the kind of Asian neighborhoods that many other cities are blessed with, and that puts us at a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to finding great Asian cuisine. Yet while the experience at some of these places is a little uneven, I've already had great Asian dishes from Pho Thanh, Nee House, Phoenix Palace, Szechwan Palace, Hue Gourmet, Chuhgajib, Taiwan Food Express, and Sekong By Night, more creative places like Nobuo at Teeter House and Posh, and even more places that I'm forgetting at the moment. Heck, even the misses at most of these places are head and shoulders above anything I tasted at Sens. And there's so much more out there that I haven't even gotten close to yet.

So the big, uncomfortable question is why is Sens so highly regarded? For those of us who want Phoenix to be taken seriously as a food town, as it deserves to be more and more with each passing month, a place like Sens can't represent us. More importantly, we can't let it represent us. If visitors from other cities read about Sens in the Phoenix press, I shudder to think of what it says to them when they actually eat there. This food won't and shouldn't be taken seriously because it isn't serious food. It isn't even good food. And we have to both expect more and find and support those who will do these traditions justice, both upscale and down, old school and new. Despite my experience at Sens, I'm even open to the possibility that Johnny Chu could be one of those people. He came perilously close to doing something really great with Tien Wong. If he could focus less on being cool and more on simply being good, maybe he'll get there. But whether it's at the hands of Chu or somebody else, we're going to get the restaurants we deserve, by which I mean the scene isn't going to be shaped by us passively sitting back and accepting any mediocre pseudo-Asian joint that rolls along, no matter how pretty it is. And I won't absolve myself of responsibility. This is my failing as well. My fellow food nerds and I need to do more. We need to dig, find those gems, comb those menus, get the word out and show folks the beauty of these foods when they're done right, and not simply pillaged for their flavor palette. And the flipside of this is that we have to be willing to call out mediocrity when we see it, which is why I'm posting about Sens rather than sticking this one in my pocket, which would be the easy thing to do.

There's an epilogue here that's yet to be written. Chu is the chef for Scottsdale's forthcoming behemoth ultra lounge, The Mint. Three bars, a 4,000 square foot patio, cabanas, and a huge bank vault door as a decorative centerpiece suggest that it's more meet market than meat market. And yet, that's a Johnny Chu menu, which means the food is sure to attract a significant amount of press. The question is, will that food be any good, and if it isn't, what will the reaction be? The answers, as well as the other names that surface in the ensuing discussion, will still say a lot about both the present and future of the food scene in Phoenix. I hope and expect to be a part of that conversation. As long as Johnny Chu doesn't kill me first.

Sens
www.sensake.com
705 N. 1st Street
Phoenix, AZ 85004
602-340-9777
Mon - Thu11:00 AM - 2:00 PM5:00 PM - 12:00 AM
Fri11:00 AM - 2:00 PM5:00 PM - 2:00 AM
Sat 5:00 PM - 2:00 AM
Sun 5:00 PM - ?

Comments

Thanks for eloquently stating what I've thought about Sens since the first time I went when it had just opened (to about 4 times in the years since, and then stopped going altogether). I never understood all the accolades people gave it (as well as Fate, Chu's former restaurant where Bliss/Rebar now inhabits a few blocks away).

Agreed that there are several examples of great authentic Asian food in the Valley, and I'm not against Asian fusion if it's innovative and done exceptionally well, but Sens isn't the place to find either, unfortunately.

That said, looking forward to the hidden gem hunt!

PS. How did I miss Tien Wong? I obviously live under a rock these days.

"So the big, uncomfortable question is why is Sens so highly regarded? For those of us who want Phoenix to be taken seriously as a food town, as it deserves to be more and more with each passing month, a place like Sens can't represent us. More importantly, we can't let it represent us. If visitors from other cities read about Sens in the Phoenix press, I shudder to think of what it says to them when they actually eat there. This food won't and shouldn't be taken seriously because it isn't serious food. It isn't even good food."

If I may venture into the dangerous territory of guessing why people say the things they do, it sounds like Sens is getting the benefit of the 'foodie-poseurs', the people who want to be seen as food nerds but who don't have the knowledge to back it up. The result is that they often tend to look at style without seeing whether there's substance to support it, and that they merrily leap onto whichever bandwagon is passing by at the time, blissfully unaware that the band it's carrying is woefully off-key. These are the people who swore off merlot and bought pinot noir because of Sideways; they don't know why; they just know what.

Another, kinder, interpretation is one that you've touched on several times, including in this review: "Phoenix doesn't have the kind of Asian neighborhoods that many other cities are blessed with, and that puts us at a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to finding great Asian cuisine." It can be hard to recognize 'bad' when 'mediocre' is the prevailing standard.

dom, i'm with rab. i get why you don't like this place. in fact, i get why others in phoenix might love the place (it sells itself well to locals). i just wish that this didn't come from a place of "wanting phoenix to be taken seriously as a food town." really? come on. there are food towns and then there's everyone else. (i live in else-land too, st. louis to be exact). it's ok to not be a food town and accept you never will be. it's ok to be the guy who is saying "the emperor is wearing no clothes." just, it is a lot of pressure to demand of local establishments in phoenix (you admitted there is no there there with the downtown, if i remember correctly) that they elevate themselves to the level of nationally competitive. i say this with love and understanding. :)

The BMC... I think Tien Wong popped up while you were in an undisclosed bunker somewhere. This past fall, maybe? Asian hot pot. Waaaaay too many broths (Seven? Eight?), great list of ingredients, same two lousy dipping sauces no matter which broth you get. Miso broth (like shabu shabu)? Spicy ponzu and lousy goma-su. Spicy Chinese broth? Spicy ponzu and lousy goma-su. Vietnamese lemongrass broth? Spicy ponzu and lousy goma-su. Ton of promise, brought to a screeching halt. And I'm on the same page when it comes to fusion done well. Nobuo at Teeter House is less than a mile away, and that place is fabulous.

rabrab... I think you're probably on point with the foodie-poseur hypothesis, both because it's trendy and hot and also because while good alternatives exist, they really do require some dedication to find out here. But I'm thinking more of those who actually do have some food knowledge getting excited about the place. There's a crowd here that would really love for Phoenix to be taken seriously as a food town, and I wonder if there's some element of talking about what they wish a place like Sens could be, rather than what it actually is. It's hard to say, though. And who knows? I went twice, but it's been a while since I read anything about them. Maybe they've really dropped off the table. But I doubt it. As bad as the execution problems were, many of these dishes were poorly conceived and wouldn't have a chance no matter how well they're prepared.

Ally... Of course I'm not trying to suggest Phoenix as a food destination like NY, Chicago, LA, SF, etc. There's civic pride and there's fantasy. But I think there's a pervasive feeling here that Phoenix has made some big strides in recent years and that the level of respect currently lags behind the reality, both of which I think are probably the case. My interest isn't so much in what Phoenix' reputation is in the rest of the country. Though many feel that way, it's not a contest as far as I'm concerned. But since many people DO feel that way, I'd love to see that energy focused on demanding more of the local scene. You have to be realistic, of course. But you have to be willing to point out those warts and say, "Hey, this isn't acceptable," to elevate the scene. There are enough rumblings in the food scene here that I think the ground is fertile for some significant change, but I feel like people might need to get a little mad to provide a little extra impetus. I don't know. My thoughts on this are still coalescing. I just know that saying, "Hey, Sens is great!" does NOT help.

His food is quite simply not good, you have to remember that he is not a chef. He has no formal training, most chinese women have about the same amount of skill in the kitchen. The other thing to remember is he uses a lot of MSG but he will deny this fact.

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