Approaching Sens, the new Mediterranean restaurant, from the palm-lined boulevard of the Embarcadero, means walking across Justin Herman Plaza past the holiday ice rink, where flocks of skaters swirl in a big circle to music. Looping strings of lights turn the Bay Bridge into a huge ornament; others trace the geometrical lines of the four Embarcadero Center skyscrapers, making them look like giant toys.
On the escalators, the mood changes, but diners arrive at a dreamy Mediterranean fishing village — a sprawling, cave-like space with dramatic wooden ceiling beams and real stone walls; slate floors scattered with oriental rugs; and an expansive tiled open kitchen bedecked with bowls of fruits and vegetables.
Lo and behold, the illuminated Ferry Building and outlined Bay Bridge romantically glow through picture windows. The lush surroundings couldn't be further from the austerity of the modern office complex.
The cooking team, headed by Evvia veteran Michael Dotson, prepares a menu that matches the decor. With a nod to the groundbreaking Greek restaurant on the Peninsula, Dotson incorporates lots of halloumi and feta, olives, spreads, flatbreads, lamb, squid and octopus, but his take feels more Eastern Mediterranean than Greek. Plenty of seasonal inspiration comes from the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market across the way.
As in many Mediterranean restaurants, a whole meal can be made of small plates on Sens' menu. The first one comes gratis — a dish of fresh ricotta in a pool of golden olive oil for bread dipping.
Dive into the meal with sea bass kofte ($10), crunchy fritters of fish and bulgar, scented with orange peel.
A Christmas salad of perfectly cooked tri-colored baby beets ($9) gets it own ornaments — deep-fried cubes of sesame seed-coated halloumi cheese.
I liked Sens lambs lettuce salad ($10), mild, tender leaves tossed with endive, fuyu persimmons, toasted hazelnuts and pungent dry white cheese, in a fragrant Meyer lemon dressing.
A big pile of meaty lamb riblets ($11), aromatic with cumin, accompanied by an onion and parsley leaf salad, makes for a delightful and complete main course.
Earlier in the season, Dotson offered a beautiful heirloom tomato salad, a rainbow of wedges, with quenelles of soft white cheese and a toast beneath to collect the juices ($9). We'll have to wait a year to see this one again — sorry.
Tender manti ($16) (Middle Eastern ravioli) filled with winter squash and chestnut puree are served with yummy charred cauliflower, cipollini onions and yogurt. Lamb chops ($32) arrived medium rare and juicy with bits of crusty braised breast and wilted greens — just my kind of plate.
However, some dishes over several visits disappointed. A huge, handsome braised lamb shank ($26), grilled veal tongue ($10) and Wolfe Ranch quail with house made lamb sausages ($24) all tasted tired.
Pastry chef Shuna Lydon, a creative force who previously worked at Aziza, Citizen Cake and Gramercy Tavern, among other high profile kitchens, comes up with multifaceted desserts like the scintillating Lemon Essence ($9) — fennel-scented short bread, tingling lemon sorbet, pine nut-date-olive oil relish, and a cap of creamy lemon souffle layered in a deep bowl.
Warm service and a well-organized one-page wine list add to the pleasure of being here. It takes a transformative restaurant like Sens to bring its patrons from the office, one minute, to vacation in a Mediterranean village, the next.
Start off a meal at Sens with crunchy sea bass kofte — tasty fish fritters served with bulgar.
Persimmons, hazelnuts, dry white cheese and a fragrant Meyer lemon dressing complement the leaves in the delicious lambs lettuce salad.
Location: 4 Embarcadero Center, Promenade Level, San Francisco
Contact: (415) 362-0645; www.sens-sf.com
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. lunch and 5:30 to 10 p.m. dinner Monday through Friday; 5 to 11 p.m. dinner Saturday
Price range: $5 to $14, starters; $16 to $32, main courses
Recommended dishes: Lamb riblets, lambs lettuce salad, sea bass kofte, grilled lamb chops, squash manti, Lemon Essence
Credit cards: All major