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March, 2009, Page 140
Photography by Richard Maack
Ginger mint duck salad with papaya mango spring rolls
Not the ideal location for a full-fledged meal, Sens caters perfectly to the sake-sipping, tapas-grazing, people-watching crowd.
Sens, a sake lounge serving pan-Asian tapas, would look more at home in Greenwich Village or West L.A. than on a mostly deserted stretch of Downtown Phoenix. It’s the kind of modest, self-assured gathering spot that seems to know exactly who its audience is.
More imagination than money went into the fresh, eclectic décor that combines a watch-the-fun bar/food prep area, striking light fixtures, a cluster of moon-shaped mirrors and a red, black and white palette flashed with neon.
Early evenings, when I visited, the customers included people stopping by after work, families from the neighborhood and later, as the rather distressing techno music amped up, young adults in groups and pairs. The very congenial staff is headed up by chef/owner Johnny Chu, formerly of Fate. (How personable were the guys who waited on us? Let’s just say if I were working for another restaurant, I would have done my best to poach them.)
This isn’t a restaurant in the generally accepted sense. You’d have to work hard and long to cobble together a standard full meal here. Don’t try. Instead, relax with the idea that you are at Sens to sip, nibble, converse and people watch.
Proceed with sipping. If you are old school and like warm sake, get with the program – high-end sakes are served slightly chilled. This Jack Daniel’s gal was briefly made a believer by the lovely fresh fruit, vegetable and herb-flavored “martinis.”
Food comes out willy-nilly, so keep ordering until you’re satisfied. With flavors this subtle and well-integrated, it doesn’t take long. A special – salt, garlic and chile prawns – were crisp-juicy and thoughtfully paired with a sparkling Asian slaw ($8). And don’t miss the perfect soy/ginger-marinated grilled fish ($9), or tender little clams steamed with vibrant Thai basil ($8). Hot and sour soup with shrimp, okra, tomato and pineapple in sesame-redolent broth was an offbeat delight ($10).
Soup gyozas – broth-filled noodle packets ($6) – are more fun than popcorn, and plump five-spice perfumed chicken wings ($5) will make you forget Buffalo. Lime-mint beef is similar to ceviche, zingy with sweet chile sauce ($9), but the volcano beef ($9) didn’t thrill, only because it was cut too thickly to properly cook on the hot stone.
I wish that every salad out there were as appealing as the slivered duck tossed with mint and julienned veggies in a ginger-vinaigrette ($8). Papaya mango spring rolls were also ideal, thin-shelled and greaseless ($5). And the lightly crusted, mild chicken breast was a nice foil for tongue-searing wasabi sauce.
Sens is sans dessert for now, but the experience is likely to leave both a sweet and spicy taste in your mouth.
: Pan-Asian Tapas
: 705 N. First St., Phoenix
: 5 p.m. to midnight, Monday through Thursday; until 2 a.m., Saturday and Sunday
: Soup gyoza ($6), ginger mint duck salad ($8), five-spice chicken wings ($5), Thai basil clams ($8), hot and sour shabu soup ($10)
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