Roll Model: A Review of Sensu

As downtown’s most ambitious ultralounge, Sensu raises the bar for opulence and cocktail-friendly, Asian-inspired edibles.
Editor’s Note, June 22, 2012: Sensu announced early this month that it will no longer serve dinner. It will, however, remain an upscale nightclub and special-event venue, with Asian-inspired catering services available.
You get the sense, stepping off Meridian Street into the vaulted pleasure palace of Sensu, another in Jeremiah Hamman’s growing portfolio of luxe supper clubs, that the terms “restaurant” and “bar” have finally been retired. Sensu is both and neither at the same time. Shallow pools dappled with rose petals greet you in the broad foyer. Around the corner, a gaggle of fashionably distracted hostesses stand ready to escort you up a curvaceous staircase with all the dramatic buildup of the best amusement-park rides. At the top, a dining room soars above the discotheque below, its walls wearing the shimmer of oyster shells—where secluded booths put you in direct view of massive movie screens. You haven’t just arrived at your table for dinner; you’ve been transported to another, hipper dimension.
That sums up the scene at Sensu. You toss out all your former notions of dining and cede control to the throbbing vibe. “You can order your own dinner,” our polished, unflappable waitress conceded, “but I’ll be bringing out dishes when they’re ready, so you might be eating alone.” It would be hard to be alone in this perennially packed ultralounge where celebrities such as Colts owner Jim Irsay can be seen toasting his crew with an A.J. Foyt chardonnay. Hamman himself, whose hits include Mo’s … A Place for Steaks and Mo’s Irish Pub in Noblesville, patrols the room, himself a bit of a VIP. But his concept of shared cuisine is contagious, and there’s no mistaking the kitchen’s prowess, as well as the sushi chefs’ skill with such tasty house specialties as a baked snow-crab hand roll, with a restrained crunch and not too much spiced mayo wrapped inside airy rice paper.
» Sensu was one of our Top 10 Best New Restaurants in May 2012.
Whatever you order, the waitstaff, who prefer to see themselves as “guides,” will reconfigure your choices into a loose, multicourse meal that gradually unfolds over the evening. This leads to some refreshing surprises. Simple Chinese broccoli, which our waitress turned into a starter instead of a side, had a crisp, salty bite that cut against our sweet cocktails, and a big bowl of Shishito peppers drizzled with tangy ponzu made for perfectly piquant snacking. A spicy squid salad could have used a sharper dressing, but fresh, slightly astringent greens and just enough meaty strips of squid made for a delicious intermezzo. Wee shrimp-toast points came with a revelatory “jam” of strawberries and raw tuna. We could have eaten a bowl of it. Diners not strolling down to cut a rug can get more substantial entrees. Flaky black cod came dressed simply in rich miso sauce. The signature filet with a loose “crust” of crab and shiitakes had a nice hit of wasabi, and mashed potatoes had just enough lumps to make them comfortingly rustic.
The mingling of club and dining spot does not always go smoothly. As the night progressed and young revelers dotted the dance floor below, the visuals on the screens morphed into self-referential dance-club scenes, with a lot more cleavage than we generally like with supper, and footage of models romping in a jungle that looked like a trailer for a new reality-TV show. What had been innocuous techno for most of the evening became all-too-recognizable club fodder such as Salt ’n’ Peppa’s “Push It,” drowning out what little table conversation we’d been able to manage.
Even a few dishes baffled. A hunk of braised pork belly lacquered in hoisin sauce was luscious but came with just a single steak knife and no fork, begging one brave diner at our table to scorch his fingers. Chicken satay had a tasty enough peanut sauce but was basically dry and slightly rubbery chicken strips. A big gooey macadamia-nut cookie with a giant ball of vanilla ice cream was oddly monochromatic, wanting of a sauce or garnish and so sweet it stung our teeth. All in all, these gentle gaffes made the place more real and kept us from getting too caught up in its buzz. We were in a restaurant, after all, albeit a high-style, high-energy one that temporarily took us to a place we’d never been.
225 S. Meridian St., 536-0036,
HOURS Mon.–Sat. 5–11 p.m.

This article appeared in the July 2011 issue.