Cafe Reviews

Sens Asian Tapas & Sake Bar Unites Southeast Asian Flavors with Infused Shochu

Talk about filling a niche.

When it comes to Asian food in downtown Phoenix, the offerings are definitely sparse, but now there's a new restaurant that takes the scene a big leap in the right direction, catering to diners' culinary wanderlust with Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and Vietnamese dishes.

I'm talking about Sens Asian Tapas & Sake Bar, the brainchild of chef Johnny Chu, who also owns Fate, the high-energy pan-Asian eatery at Fourth Street and Garfield. Open since October, it's a great fit for downtown — an interesting, independent restaurant with a distinctive vision and delicious food. And although Sens is not open for the weekday lunch crowd, it does bring a new dimension to local nightlife as both a restaurant and a watering hole.

For one thing, this is the first sake bar in the neighborhood, offering 60 kinds of sake and several flavors of infused shochu, a distilled liquor made from rice, barley, or sweet potatoes. These two Japanese beverages are hugely popular in other cities but still somewhat novel in these parts (outside of traditional Japanese restaurants), so it's nice to see such a selection. Sens has beer, wine, and cocktails as well.

Sens also brings a dose of style, with a modern look that reflects Hong Kong-born Chu's urban-globetrotter taste. A serene Buddha statue stands just inside the entrance, while hot pink lotus lamps hang above a long counter that's half sake bar, half open kitchen. Blue neon radiates from underneath the bar, casting a cool hue on sculptural white walls and sleek white seats. There's a cozy mini dining room tucked off to the side, glowing pink from a giant ceiling lotus. And later in the evenings, a DJ sets up his turntables near the doorway, where he spins lounge-y electronic music.

If you've ever been to Fate, you'll recognize the aesthetic, but the feeling at Sens is more intimate, the pace more relaxed.

Same goes with the food. It's served in small portions meant for sharing, and the kitchen sends plates out in no particular order, as they're ready — think Japanese izakaya with a Southeast Asian spin. The menu is also more homey than at Fate, with various kinds of dumplings and hotpots and nibbles meant to be dunked in dipping sauces. Depending on what you order, you can make a meal out of two or three things or, perhaps, just one if you have noodles or rice on the side.

I was impressed with Chu's simple but high-impact preparations, as well as his use of noticeably fresh ingredients. His lime mint beef was a good example. Served with puffy prawn rice crackers to heap it on, the refreshing carpaccio balanced the buttery sweetness of fresh raw beef with tangy citrus. Slices of cold marinated duck breast were also very moist and almost sweet, heightened by accents of orange peel in the accompanying sauce.

Likewise, I loved the aromatic appeal of grilled dishes like the soy-ginger marinated yellowtail. Wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled until the leaf started to char, the fish was moist, with a savory, smoky flavor that contrasted well with tangy-sweet dipping sauce. Even a simple plate of mixed vegetables and mushrooms was noteworthy, thanks to the same banana leaf treatment.

Chu has a deft touch with the deep fryer, too. As at Fate, the fried tofu at Sens is exceptional, with the lightest, crispiest golden coating. Different seasonings and dips give you several ways to appreciate it here; the one sprinkled with sesame seeds and paired with spicy sesame sauce was tasty and easy to inhale. Crispy tofu also complemented the banana blossom salad, a dazzling jumble of tender, slightly bitter banana flower stamen, shredded red and napa cabbage, and Thai basil in a punchy, tangy red chile sauce.

Fried ground pork wrapped around sugar cane sticks was heavier, crunchier, and somehow more bland, although pineapple-ginger sauce helped lighten the flavors. I wouldn't order it again. Instead, I'd go for seconds with the awesome fried quail, which was surprisingly moist, with a faint whiff of Chinese five-spice. And whole shrimp, topped with fried garlic, was so crispy and light that I gobbled up the heads and tails right along with the plump meat.

As the nights get cooler, I'm sure I'll be craving Sens' delightful soup gyoza, something you just don't see at Chinese restaurants around here. True to their name, these delicate bite-sized dumplings were filled with salty, rich broth, plus a nugget of pork-cabbage filling. (Bite carefully, or they'll burst!) Meanwhile, handmade shumai, filled with pork and shrimp, had a pleasant wasabi kick.

Simmered clay-pot dishes were warm and comforting, too. Clams cooked with Thai basil were decent, but red curry tofu was downright scrumptious, with just the faintest hint of coconut milk, a touch of spicy heat, and a gravy-like texture that would've gone perfectly with a bowl of rice. Alas, I made do with my spoon.

Shabu-shabu is a kind of do-it-yourself Japanese hotpot named after the sound of swishing meat around in boiling broth. Authentic versions of the dish aren't common in this area, but at least Sens pays tribute to it with its "shabu-styled" soups, which come with a soy-ginger dipping sauce that's similar to what you'd get with true shabu-shabu. I sampled the hot and sour shrimp — delicious with the dip, equally good in its own spicy broth, and a fun idea, in any case.

There's no dessert menu at Sens — and really, who needs dessert when you're knocking back fruity nigorizake or lychee-flavored shochu? Still, one night's special was just the right conclusion to dinner: half a papaya, filled with tapioca pudding and coconut milk. Juicy, ripe fruit mingled with sweet, tropical creaminess — simple but stunning.

Like so many other things at Sens, it was even better than the sum of its parts.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig