I highly recommend Sensing to anyone who likes a healthy dose of the absurd. From the seating by the hostess to the dessert menus, the extremely friendly (but extremely poorly trained) waitstaff and the long-on-promise, short-on-delivery kitchen at Sensing never miss an opportunity to violate every expectation you might have for dining in an establishment that is a recent recipient of AAA’s Four-Diamond rating. Our experience single-handedly rendered that distinction meaningless to me. Or, at the least, demonstrated the extent to which Guy Martin’s name rings out amongst the circles of people who dole out these awards. Speaking of Guy Martin’s name, I am confident he’d roll over in his bed at the Ritz if he were to eat at the current incarnation of his Boston namesake.

We arrived at 6pm for dinner expecting to find an empty dining room. We did. But that’s no big deal – the somewhat removed location,  the not so great reviews, and what I imagine to be the difficulty of selling the $825,000 – $5 million units at the Battery Wharf have all contributed to the low foot-traffic. We were greeted and seated promptly by the friendly hostess, but given two different dinner menus. A problem which our equally friendly but equally confused waiter had to consult the kitchen to resolve. We immediately ordered the snacking platter which is either one each of 6 different amuse bouches, or 6 of one. To go with our snacks we decided to order a glass each of sparkling wine. Sensing’s wine list is unimpressive – neither varied nor interesting.  With so few offerings, you would think the waitstaff would be able to say something coherent about each wine. Liz and I ordered 2 of the 3 possible glasses of sparkling wine – a prosecco and a scharffenberger – and were met with a blank stare and a request to point to what we wanted.  This is not the waiter’s fault. To me, failures of knowledge like that demonstrate a restaurant’s rotting infrastructure and total managerial indifference. Whoever is steering the ship at Sensing has seriously failed in their responsibilities to train the waitstaff, and has their sights set on a Fall ’09 closing.

Things did not get any better when the food arrived:

snacking platter

snacking platter

From the  bottom right going clockwise we have an oyster with shallots and vinegar (this was quite tasty), some kind of fried cheese with a tomato, a clam, a ball of cantaloupe with prosciutto and a wine jelly, a lobster roll, and in the middle a glass of tomato water. Apart from the oyster, all these were disappointing. The cheese was cold, the “sixty-second clam” earned its name for the amount of time it took to chew through it, the jelly with the cantaloupe and melon had an off-putting mealy texture, the lobster roll was fine, and the tomato water was overwhelmingly infused with vanilla foreshadowing a meal with flavor combinations that  I think Devra Frist at the Globe accurately described as “strange, but not delightful”.

seared tuna salad

seared tuna salad

I enjoyed my salad, it was certainly the highlight of the night. The tuna was nicely cooked, the lemon dressing was subtle but tasty, and the flavor combination with the anchovy, quail eggs, and cucumber worked well. There’s nothing new about this dish, but it was still a solid version.

heirloom tomato salad

heirloom tomato salad

Liz’s tomato salad with basil ginger dressing and candied pine nuts didn’t impress. The tomatoes weren’t very good, and when you’re serving a dish this simple, they had better be.

At this point in the evening Liz and I decided to order a half bottle of red to go with our meat courses. As I perused the short list I came across an oddity: under the red wines they had listed a wine called Innocent Bystander, Moscato, 2008.  A red moscato? Not listed under dessert or aperitif? I was curious. Maybe this wine list wasn’t so bad after all. I’d only seen a non-desserty moscato once, and certainly never a moscato that had qualities akin to a wine you might reasonably categorize as “red”. But I assumed it was there for good reason and decided to order it. Big mistake. What arrived was a very ordinary incarnation of sweet sparkling rose. Just the thing you want to go with steak and lamb. The waiter commented he had never seen a wine like this before. What I had never seen is a frickin’ sweet sparkling rose listed under red wines, at least not in a restaurant that gave a damn about the quality of its service.

olive encrusted lamb loin

olive encrusted lamb loin

Ordered it rare. It came medium well with pink ends.

beef strip loin, chick pea fries, mizuna, thai curry and anchovy sauce

beef strip loin, chick pea fries, mizuna, thai curry and anchovy sauce

Ordered it rare, 1/3 of it actually was (presumably, the 1/3 that was not sitting directly under a heat lamp for 10 minutes), the rest was medium well. And the chick pea fries were soggy, inedible cubes of warm flour. If you want a real chick pea fry go to Garden at the Cellar.

mystery asparagus

mystery asparagus

Along with our meat came this plate of mystery asparagus. We didn’t order it, and the waiters didn’t mention it when they brought it over.It was actually pretty good. Wish we knew what the heck it was.

Wanting to get the full Sensing experience, we decided to order a dessert. The waiter, again, brought two different menus, one brunch and one dessert.  Upon joking to Liz that the Coast Guard Omelet looked really good, the moment got the best of us and we could not stop laughing at the absurdity of this dinner. The chuckles would have quickly turned into sobs if we thought about the money we were about to spend on it. We waited about 20 minutes for the waiter to return to take our order, ate a mediocre piece of cheesecake, and split.

I am viscerally repulsed that we spent $220 on this experience. This is not a matter of disliking the food. Any kitchen can have a bad night, or a bad table on a good night. But I get the feeling that the people in charge at Sensing know its not going to last and they just don’t care.  Such horrible attention to detail shows a lack of pride that surely starts at the top and only then trickles down to the kitchen and waitstaff.  If you find yourself  near Battery Wharf you’d be better off buying a burger at the nearby Sail Loft and spending your remaining $210 on something other than lining an absentee chef’s  pockets.

Sensing on Urbanspoon

A little background about my father. Ernesto left Vicenza, Italy in 1970 at the age of 21 to come to Boston to become a Catholic priest. He met my mother in a “night club” in the basement of a church in the North End, she wooed him away from the cloth, they married in ’74, and they now live in Andover, MA. My mother is an excellent cook (she docked at Ellis island in ’59 coming from Calabria); my dad’s mother was an excellent cook; my mother’s mother is an excellent cook. My father has been fed delicious, homemade Italian cooking for the entirety of his life. He belongs to an association of Boston-based Italian food critics that go from Italian restaurant to Italian restaurant in the area, criticizing the authenticity of the restaurant’s offerings (e.g. this isn’t Amatriciana! Ma va! Where’s the guanciale? Too much oil! etc.. etc…). Why, God, why, did he – on the eve of running the Boston marathon no less- bring us, my mother, and three business partners from Italy (also running the marathon the next day) to Maurizio’s on Hanover St Sunday night? What noxious siren sang to him from the depths of their dining room?

“If that’s Bruschetta then my name is Leslie” my mother quipped as the appetizers arrived. The rest of the meal didn’t get any better. It can be summed up like so: excessive garlic, oodles of sauce months removed from actual tomatoes, soft unsalted pasta, and oil.

Don’t go. Or, at least, don’t go to eat.

Now, I don’t want to unfairly pick on Maurizio’s, in fact I don’t think Maurizio’s should be blamed for the food. Owners of infamous “red sauce” establishments in the North End know what good Italian food is and they most likely know how to make it. But why spend time and resources on cooking good food if you can sell the same quantity of bad food? If I can run down to Quincy Market, tell the guys on the truck to give me their worst tomatoes for free, cut them up, drown them in olive oil and garlic and dump it on a toasted week old baguette for $7, why wouldn’t I? What am I stupid? No, I am not stupid. Who am I to disappoint the couple sitting in my restaurant goo-goo ga-ga-ing over the sloppy melange I just served them?

The frustrating part for me is not that these restaurants exist – the owners should cook the food that sells the most – and it’s not that people patronize them – people should eat the food that they like to eat. It’s that these restaurants have co-opted and sullied a cultural identity and the customers buy into it. Customers think they’re having an Italian experience. There are accordions, pictures of Italy and husky waiters with accents as thick as the chest hair that billows from the tops of their t-shirts, etc… I find it inappropriate to couch food that is so far removed from Italian cuisine in this deceptive faux-Italian context. I would still eat PuPu platters even if they weren’t served in an environment denigrating rich and honored Chinese cultural traditions, and I imagine those who love the food in the North End would still eat it even if “That’s amore” weren’t playing on loop in the dining room.

Maurizio's on Urbanspoon

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