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Bruno Feldeisen and Xavier Deshayes did not come to town to piss you off. They’re not corporate raiders; they’re chefs, and French ones at that. When they moved, late last year, into the Georgetown building that for years had housed Patisserie-Cafe Didier, the transaction was friendly. Didier Schorner, the cafe’s former proprietor, was looking to retire, and he personally helped make sure that the transition in ownership was smooth. He even showed his buyers some of his most popular recipes.
For many local expats and francophiles, Patisserie-Cafe Didier was the only game in town when it came to obtaining taste memories of the holy land. The food was of the blast-from-the-past variety—quiches, madeleines, souffles—all of it good enough that Schorner made a go of it for a decade in Georgetown without a bar business; the latest he stayed open was 7 p.m. Feldeisen says that his original plan was to stay true to the institution. On artistic and professional levels, Feldeisen respected the reputation Schorner had built with his patisserie; Feldeisen’s last gig was as pastry chef at the Four Seasons in New York (Deshayes is also a Four Seasons alum), and one of his earliest jobs was working for Alain Ducasse, arguably the most celebrated French chef on the planet. But, as he soon found out, the French’s notorious aversion to culinary change is transferable to those who live vicariously through them.
“It didn’t go well at all,” Feldeisen tells me over the phone. The few changes that the new owners made in the cafe—changing its name to Xavier & Bruno Patisserie Cafe, for one—irked the Didier cult to the point that Feldeisen feared for his business. “We had all kinds of problems,” he recalls. “No matter what we did, people were mad.” Feldeisen says that he and his partner thought that they had no choice but to gut the place and start anew. So they did.
Yet if Senses, the restaurant that now sits in Xavier & Bruno’s place, feels more like the product of careful planning than last-ditch decision-making, that’s because, to some degree, it is. The owners have a stake in a similar restaurant with the same name in Toronto. Still, it wouldn’t be accurate to label Senses a chain. The recipe cards handed out at the door are ad-firm slick, but they convey the proprietors’ eagerness to get personal. On two out of three visits, we’re given a bag full of Feldeisen’s cookies just for the hell of it. One night, Deshayes, the restaurant’s chef de cuisine, sends word that he’ll gladly prepare a tasting menu for anyone interested.
Deshayes’ menu is short and sweet, but his food is boundless and smart. Gazpacho is nothing more or less than the flavor of summer subjected to a blender’s blade; it’s cucumber-clean, tomato-sweet, and topped with croutons crunchy enough to hear across the street. Given the weather, the hot soups are a tougher trick and bit of a letdown; the shrimp bisque is so mellow you could empty a bowl without tasting the point, and I find myself reaching for a salt shaker to help me coax some flavor out of the onion soup’s broth. The appetizers show best when the chef’s in pure seasonal mode. With his Key lime vinaigrette, Deshayes has found just what the summer truffle-sprinkled baby greens need, and the warm goat cheese toasts are all the better for the accompanying salad and its tomato dressing.
There isn’t much to Senses’ interior design, largely because there isn’t much to work with. The small, 42-seat dining room is clean and prim—the kind of place where ladies in Sunday hats do lunch on Tuesdays—but it’s so spare that you could confuse it for the waiting area in a downtown law firm. At first, the setting is so unassuming it seems discordant with the cooking.
The light touch of Deshayes’ appetizers is evident in some of his entrees—the delicious, veggie-laden crab cakes are paired only with a brush of mesclun—but for the most part, he uses his entrees to stun. There are moments when this tactic doesn’t seem like such a great thing. The vanilla-bean pea sauce is intriguing, but it also turns ravioli into dessert. Fresh tomatoes form the basis of a fabulous risotto, but what are those same vegetables doing in my mashed potatoes?
But at their best, Deshayes’ dishes betray the signs of a comer. And, although Senses’ prices may go up once its liquor license is activated (you can bring your own wine now), the food’s currently going for well below market value; almost all of the entrees are priced below $20, and many are under $15. The tuna on special is an eye-opener; it’s been pan-seared and then oven-roasted, and the dish is heady with the dark, licorice-y aroma of fennel—a risky pairing that the chef makes taste entirely natural. Finely turned veal is a potentially heavy dish tweaked for August: It arrives ladled with a frothy, surprisingly subtle anchovy sauce. And rack of lamb, totally tender and roasted crisp-pink, is charmingly bedded on a mound of sauteed spaetzle. Only the chicken breast, which is overwhelmed by a thick layer of crab-meat “crust,” seems truly misguided.
Feldeisen is no bit player on the Senses stage—his onion tart should be a menu mainstay (it’s not), and he’s the man behind the vanilla creme brulee and watermelon-strawberry soup that you’ll be talking about for days. But the staff could do a better job keeping the bread baskets fresh and steering people to the pastry counter come dessert time; if anything, Feldeisen’s chocolate truffle deserves its own sonnet.
Though it’s been in operation since May, Senses is still in opening mode; it likely won’t blossom fully until the house wine starts to flow. When that time comes, chances are good that the only people these guys will be pissing off are the competition.
Senses Bakery & Restaurant, 3206 Grace St. NW, (202) 342-9083.
Cities has paradoxically grown into a dining institution without ever coming into its own. Its high-concept formula—that is, changing its cuisine often enough to keep its steadies guessing—is a clever recipe for longevity, but the kitchen is never given the time or the staff to truly get the hang of anything. The city of the moment is Barcelona, but to a large degree, nothing’s changed; the dining room’s still stunning, the food’s still overpriced, and the kitchen still underperforms. A nicely cooked merzula steak is so oily we want to take a napkin and dab it dry. Is it possible to make a chickpea soup with Catalan sausage and bacon completely bland? Apparently.
Cities, 2424 18th St. NW, (202) 328-7194. —Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.