Senses redux

Senses redux

Since Claudio Aprile left Senses in the fall of 2006, the restaurant has seemed to be treading water. It was always going to be tough following Claudio’s act, but I was excited when hotelier Henry Wu brought chef Patrick Lin back from Hong Kong to man the kitchen. Lin had wowed me when he was restaurant chef at Truffles back in the early 1990s and again at Wu’s Metropolitan hotel a decade later. This time around, it seemed as if his heart wasn’t entirely engaged. The food was technically excellent—high-end French dishes of undeniable elegance—but not quite as original or exciting as I had hoped it might be. Lin’s wife and daughter were still in Hong Kong, and he was back and forth a fair bit, which may have had something to do with it. A couple of weeks ago, Lin sent word that he was about to propose a new menu for Senses—dishes he had been working on for a year—and he asked me to come by for a tasting. Delighted, I’m sure.

The first things I noticed were the changes to the decor at Senses. A wall of wine bottles now separates the main dining room from the inner room—more casual and welcoming than the sombre panels of yore. The chair backs are smaller, which makes the room seem a little bigger, and they have dropped the number of seats from 36 to 34, which adds to the effect. Instead of carpet there is now a dark hardwood floor. The overall difference is subtle, but it does seem a tad less formal.

I sat at the counter looking into the kitchen with chef Lin standing on the other side and his sous-chefs discreetly bringing elements of the dishes to his workstation. Lin was his usual gracious, charming self, smiling as he worked, gently describing the various steps and thought processes that led to each finished dish. Slicing baby cucumbers and fanning them, he reminded me of a conjuror deftly performing some long-since-perfected legerdemain, quietly gratified at the inevitable gasps of amazement from the children. With these dishes, Lin has drawn on his Cantonese heritage and his extensive French training, as well as the cuisines he has studied in more recent years: Shanghainese, Pekingese, Japanese and Italian. “I don’t call this fusion,” he explained. “It’s more about the application of the techniques of one cuisine to the ingredients of another.”

The first dish he prepared seemed to me to have an Italian structure, a Japanese mood and principal ingredients that are traditionally Cantonese. Using the knife skills he learned when studying sushi and sashimi, he cut tissue-thin slices of geoduck clam and set them aside. Then he peeled and sliced baby Chinese cucumbers. These he mixed with garlic that had been poached in milk to subdue its flavour and then mashed, lots of sea salt, finely ground black pepper, olive oil and sesame oil. He placed the cucumber slices like overlapping petals in a perfect circle on the plate. Then he made a coral-coloured dressing of blood orange juice, ginger and rice vinegar to drizzle over the cucumber. The geoduck was laid on top, then more dressing was drizzled over it. Several garnishes completed the plate: slivers of ripe Vietnamese mango (with an orangey-fennel flavour); slivers of green Thai mango (much firmer and more tart); a pinch of black sesame seeds and another of local baby seedlings; a julienne of ginger; a final piece of blood orange. It sounds complicated, but the geoduck shone at the centre of the dish, so thinly sliced but still with a toothsome little crunch to the flesh. The cucumber was crisp and juicy. Above the sweet, fresh, salty, marine taste of the geoduck, other flavours spun around like the stars of a cartoon concussion—ginger and orange, garlic and sesame, beautifully balanced.

There’s a Cantonese technique for cooking fish that first steams the creature whole then sears its surface with hot oil. Lin has borrowed the method and is applying it to a western-style fillet of barramundi. All the fish Lin uses in the Senses kitchen come to him alive, including the barramundi. You can’t get much fresher than that. Lin takes the fillet and wraps it around a fine julienne of carrot, red chili, celery root, leek and scallion before steaming it and searing it by pouring on very hot rapeseed oil. Meanwhile the trimmings of the fish are tossed with flour and cornstarch and quickly pan-fried with finely diced vegetables and pine nuts. They form one accompaniment to the fish, served alongside in a small ramekin. The other is more purely Chinese—sautéed pea shoots with salt and garlic.

Black cod gets a different treatment, its raw surface lightly cured with a dry marinade of kosher salt, pepper and brown sugar—just enough to slightly firm up the texture of the finished fish. Then Lin uses a very dark reduction of balsamic and honey to glaze the fish (it reminded me of the way eel is treated for sushi). Two absolutely gorgeous items share the cod’s fate. The first is a mash of apple and butternut squash dressed with tangy ginger. The second is a ramekin of Dungeness crab meat with tomato brunoise, onion and tarragon smothered in hollandaise and then gratinéed. Each element of the dish contributes its own subtle and distinctive sweetness.

One last description reiterates the interesting braid of Asian and western cooking that Lin proposes on this new menu. He takes an Ontario duck breast and treats it to a liquid marinade using an antique blend of Chinese spices that includes star anise, licorice, cinnamon, ginger, fennel, cardamom and 25-year-old dried tangerine peel. After this invigorating bath, the meat is dried overnight. The next step is to cook the skin but not the flesh of the duck, which is done by heating a mixture of maltose, water, red and white Chinese vinegars, sugar and Chinese wine and ladling the scalding syrup over the skin—which emerges crispy, shiny and dark. Finished in the pan, the breast ends up pink as a French magret, not grey-brown like a typical Chinese duck. Lin builds the presentation with a little purée of figs and port wine topped with firm, scored slices of king oyster mushroom, a slice of pan-seared foie gras and a mound of sautéed pea leaves with shiitake mushrooms.

Will 2008 be Patrick Lin’s year? I wouldn’t be surprised. No one else in the city is cooking in quite this way, prying apart the lacquered puzzle of traditional Chinese cuisine and placing the pieces into other cultural contexts. Senses redux is definitely worth a visit.