Barrels of ink have been spilled on the gentrification of Lawrenceville, but the neighborhood's identity as a haven for the young, the alternative, and the artisanal seems as strong as ever.
This made the opening of Senti Restaurant and Wine Bar, an unabashedly upscale Italian restaurant in the traditional fine-dining vein, a bit of a jolt to our expectations. The tradition lies not so much in the food, but in the plush furnishings, white linen and black-tie service. What the attentive, professional and gracious servers bring is Italian — not Italian-American — food done up in modern style, which is to say with artfully composed plates, modest (but sufficient) portions and awareness of trendy foods like pork belly. The overall effect is what we might imagine a tastefully contemporary restaurant in an Italian city to be like.
Some of Senti's polish derives from its location in a new apartment building at Doughboy Square. Its storefront spans quite a bit of sidewalk glass, extending into a recessed courtyard. Senti eschews the current trend for rustic neutrals in favor of a crisp color scheme that contrasts stark white with plush purple, accented by bold, abstract paintings on the walls. A long booth — more like a couch — upholstered in white leather breaks up one of the dining rooms, and the corners make for cozy, if not private, dining.
For the most part, we found the food worthy of its posh surroundings. The menu is almost as minimalist as the decor (not a fault in our book — we appreciate a kitchen that knows its strengths). But the daily specials fill in the gaps, and sounded so good we were tempted to order them almost exclusively. One that we couldn't resist was a housemade mozzarella ball, stuffed with a white anchovy and served atop a slice of local tomato amid arugula pesto and wisteria flowers. The cheese didn't have the tender texture of buffalo mozzarella but rather something a bit closer to firm, creamy chevre. The anchovy's assertively briny, but not fishy, flavor made this a glorious morsel.
- Photo by Vanessa Song
- Scallop crudo with watermelon radish, fennel and piquillo pepper at Senti
Cuttlefish with polenta consisted of pliant slices of cephalopod, their texture similar to that of Portobello mushroom, served alongside a compact wedge of corncake that was neither fluffy nor granular, but more like a firm custard. The textures were the most notable feature of this appetizer, which had flavors so mild that it was almost bland.
Radicchio salad with cream of beans sounded like a balanced flavor combination; we expected the earthy, slightly sweet beans to temper the bitterness of the radicchio. Unfortunately, it wasn't so. The pureed white beans were too scant, and even when we scooped a lot onto a single piece of radicchio, its bitterness was overpowering. Most of this plate returned to the kitchen.
A special of grill-smoked filet mignon on a bed of springtime risotto was a great success, however. The meat was cooked perfectly, with the grill imparting just enough flavor to the mild steak without smothering it in char. The risotto had been cooked in a rich broth and included finely diced, chewy, savory bits of prosciutto, ramps and white asparagus, each component distinct but delectably complementary.
Duck breast was served over more custard-like polenta and slathered with pevarada, an oily sauce studded with finely minced liver that enlivened the polenta but was superfluous with the beautiful, rich, rosy fowl.
Lasagna alla Veneta, a.k.a. Bolognese, was intensely creamy with bechamel enveloping rich ground meat between stacks of tender noodles. Amid all Senti's modern adaptations, this was an example of an Old World classic that should instantly win over any American, despite how it differs from the familiar red-sauce version of this dish.
Spaghetti in Salsa here means an olive oil-based sauce featuring sautéed, sliced onion and chopped anchovies. This was so dramatically different from any pasta sauce we have ever had that, despite its simplicity, it took a few bites to acclimate to its taste. But once we did, we fell for its unique combination of pungent, fruity and umami notes, so much more delicately composed than that of traditional tomato-and-meat sauce.
Chocolate bread pudding for dessert was every rich, moist, cocoa-licious thing we had hoped for, even if the rosemary-infused ice cream was crystalline.
By keeping portion sizes eminently reasonable, Senti is able to offer its excellent Italian fare at prices far more affordable than those at comparably fancy restaurants. Indeed, by far the dearest items on the menu are the wines, which range from expensive to stratospheric. We'd rather swoon at the food than the beverage bill, but at Senti, you can do both.