Senza holds the distinction of being the only gluten-free Michelin-starred restaurant. In a big city like Chicago, this gives them a fertile demographic and has made them quite popular. Senza’s executive chef, Noah Sandoval, was previously at Schwa, a background that undergirds Senza in several ways. Senza has borrowed the same all-tasting menu structure that one finds at Schwa, and, while I’ve never been to Schwa, I believe both restaurants are similarly dark (even if Schwa is much noisier.) Senza was one of the few Michelin-starred restaurants that neither I nor my friend had dined at, so when a conference brought me to Chicago in April, we made reservations.
At the start of this meal, my companion aptly mentioned that he feels that while Chicago harbors a reputation for elemental cuisine, occupying an equally potent presence are a legion of ‘supper club’-style restaurants. This genre, which I believe found its genesis in Los Angeles, is characterized by long tasting menus, BYO alcohol policy, an ‘underground’ décor, casual service, and youthful/trendy ingredients that shy away from traditional luxury fare. In Chicago, this category is principally represented by EL Ideas, Elizabeth, 42 Grams, Schwa, and Goosefoot. These supper club restaurants also overlap with molecular gastronomy, of course, and their direct convergence can be seen in Schwa and EL Ideas. Senza fits less tightly into this group, since it is not BYO. Yet, the restaurant is a bakery during the day, and its chameleon act supplies the requisite underground feel. Meanwhile, the restaurant prepares a similar brand of new American cooking, and exclusive tasting menu format, as these other supper club restaurants.
Senza offers tasting menus in two formats: five courses and nine courses. The longer menu, which we ordered, contains the same courses as the smaller ones, plus another appetizer, larger course, composed cheese course, and dessert.
Before being served any food, we were served complimentary glasses of this sparkling wine.
The amuse bouche was a small oyster with a silly floral garnish. It paired naturally with our sparkling wine.
The first course of the tasting was a scallop/seared foie gras dish. But, with my scallop allergy, I was served this dish of pickled tomato, burrata, and lingonberry syrup. Note also the inclusion of pea shoots, another in a long line of distracting, senseless floral garnishes. I feel bad critiquing this course since it wasn’t actually on the menu, but it was less than satisfying. To begin with, these ingredients seem more at home on an August tasting menu; I’m not sure whether this dish was recycled from last summer or whether they composed it on the fly, but it didn’t make sense in the context of this menu. We were already to be served a composed cheese course later in the menu, so it seems an error in judgment to weigh down the meal with two cheese dishes. I would have liked to see a vegetarian dish with spring produce. Another superior alternative would have been to just serve the regular first course, but with a larger serving of foie gras and no scallop.
Next was a loaf of gluten-free caraway seed bread with whipped gluten-free butter. I believe they make this using rice flour. Senza is proud of their bread, since they sell gluten-free pastries during the day, but there really wasn’t anything to recommend with this bread.
Course #2 was a parsnip soup with horseradish cream, drops of cherry syrup, guanciale, and crab. This dish typifies the kitchen’s plating style, which involves, paradoxically, a composed abstraction of five or so core ingredients, in addition to a superfluous garnish. This was probably my favorite course. I like crab in decadent preparations, and the parsnip broth and horseradish cream served this purpose, while the guanciale and cherry kept things interesting.
Our fish course came third. Here we have a nice piece of loup de mer, with artichokes, trout roe, and dashi broth. Rather than serving the skin on the fish, it was fried and dusted with paprika, presumably in an effort to mimic a chicharron. This application of the skin probably constitutes the most inventive flourish from the meal and so conceptually, I liked this dish. Unfortunately, I would have rather just had the skin served on the bass, although the sea bass was perfectly cooked and the dashi broth appropriate for this very delicate treatment of fish.
Pork belly comprised the first meat course, served with celeriac, coriander, marshmallow and lingonberry syrup. The kitchen did a nice job of achieving a crispy texture while also keeping the meat tender. The supporting ingredients didn’t add much of anything and seemed aesthetically motivated more than anything.
The meal then took a detour away from proteins, with agnolotti filled with morel mushrooms and served with kumquats and huckleberries. I think the kitchen includes this pasta dish in an effort to overcome perceived limitations relating to gluten-free cuisine. The pasta tasted way off, though—there was no substance to the wrapper. Also, I love morels, but the incorporation of fruit didn’t make much sense. For morel agnolotti, I’d rather the kitchen embrace the luxurious flavors all the way, which didn’t need to be tempered with the acid of the fruit. A very disappointing dish.
The last meat was lamb rack, lamb belly, cippolini onion, garlic chip, nasturtium, and pickled mustard seeds. The lamb rack was roasted in ash, a technique I experienced earlier this year at Sixteen. It is salty but successful, yet I think it works better with heartier winter flavors than the spring garnishes featured in this presentation.
A composed cheese course featured raclette, with membrillo, raisin, pancetta, and basil. This seemed overly heavy for a meal that rested on light flavors. My enjoyment was also mitigated by the fact that I’d already been served a heavy cheese earlier.
Senza includes two desserts in the nine-course menu. The first of these was an oatmeal dessert that also included pine nut, toasted marshmallow meringue, apricot, and sherry vanilla ice cream. This was better than the second dessert, but I don’t think the oatmeal worked. Rather than offering any crunch, it was powdery and dominated by the ice cream.
The last dessert was a chocolate butterscotch cake, with butterscotch ice cream, pumpkin seed brittle, rosemary, and raspberry. This dessert was marred by the absence of any butterscotch, either in the ice cream or the cake. Chocolate and raspberry is a classic combination but this could have been better. I do like that this was a rare case in which the composition of the desserts was actually in line with the aesthetic of the savories. This style of abstract dessert is ubiquitous now, and for most restaurants, the free-form composition breaks away from the more composed look of the savories. However, because Senza’s earlier dishes were also abstract, we don’t see the schism that often takes place in the shift from savories to sweets.
Considering that Senza is the only Michelin-starred gluten-free restaurant, I am not surprised that it’s attracted a lot of attention over the past year. Moving past the singularity of its dietary precepts, however, this meal was not impressive. In fact, given that Senza holds fast to dietary restrictions, I’m shocked by how much this meal felt like what I could find anywhere else. There is a weightless feeling to the cuisine; the meal had no centerpiece, and for the most part, what we were served felt like trite variations of contemporary American cuisine. Most plates had a few different textures and a decent protein, but nothing inspired. The only exception to this was the unique application of skin in the loup de mer, but that was not ultimately satisfying to me. From one dish to the next, risks were not taken. I know that Chef Sandoval cooked at Schwa, but I don’t see that he is taking the chances that Michael Carlson does. The cuisine at Boka may seem less ambitious, but I would rather have an a la carte meal with clear flavors than what we were served this evening.
I also have to take issue with the way in which Senza presents its food. Specifically, the use of floral granishes was way out of control. Counting the amuse bouche, we were served 10 plates of food, and all 10(!) had ridiculous herb/sprout garnishes. They can’t be doing this to distinguish themselves visually, since this practice is seen everywhere now. There is no need for a composed cheese plate to be covered in herbs. I began noticing this trend in gastropubs/casual restaurants a few years ago, and it seems to be getting absorbed within the sphere of fine dining.
In addition, the aesthetics could be enhanced through the use of more creative service ware. Virtually everything was served on a white plate, which is fine for an a la carte meal but gets boring over nine courses. To be fair, the plates came in different shapes, but I would like to see more color. The only exceptions were transitional courses: the bread (served on a nice slate), the cheese, and the oyster. Senza clearly puts a lot of thought into their compositions, and they should be supported by more lively plates. It feels very high-modernist for all of the food to be framed by these white plates, which wind up flattening the compositions and countering the sculptural three-dimensionality of many of the designs. Grant Achatz’s genius, for example, doesn’t just lie in the food he puts on the plate; he also realizes that the impact of a dish is enhanced by serving it in a distinctive vessel. To my mind, extended tasting menus, particularly in youthful restaurants like Senza, need to be mindful of the stale rhythm of one white plate following another.
It is admittedly unfair to pin this visual criticism on Senza alone, since their method of presentation is shared by many restaurants. My central critique has to do with the restaurant’s treatment of gluten-free cuisine. I was hoping for this meal to really address the particularities of gluten-free, not unlike a vegetarian menu that foregrounds the virtues of good produce. Instead, the proposition here seems to be: “we can make gluten-free look like ‘normal’ modern American cooking,” not “this is what is special about gluten-free.” The two courses that offered specifically gluten-free versions of dishes that would normally contain gluten, the pasta and the bread, just tasted like impoverished versions of their gluten counterparts. I suppose that gluten-free may not offer any pleasures distinct from non-gluten-free cooking, but if that is the case I have no reason to dine at this restaurant in the first place. At least in this meal, gluten-free seems to be defined by negation—what it doesn’t have (gluten)—rather than what it may offer. I know one could point to many artistic movements premised on setting restrictions, with the idea that implementing limitations stimulates the creative process. However, I don’t see such creativity taking place at this restaurant, and it shows that the executive chef’s background is in non-gluten-free restaurants. Senza may hold the distinction of being the only gluten-free Michelin-starred restaurant, but I can find more distinctive cuisine elsewhere.