SENSES BAKERY & RESTAURANT -- 3206 GRACE ST. NW. 202-342-9083. Open: for breakfast Tuesday through Sunday 8 to 11 a.m.; for brunch Sunday 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for lunch Tuesday through Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Tuesday through Saturday 6 to 10 p.m.; for tea Tuesday through Sunday 3 to 5 p.m. Closed Monday. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted. No smoking. Prices: lunch appetizers $5.50 to $9.50, entrees $10.50 to $15.50; dinner appetizers $6.50 to $12.50, entrees $12 to $23. Full dinner with tax and tip $27 to $50 per person.
So quiet, so gentle, so civilized. Patisserie Cafe Didier has been transformed under new owners into a pastry shop surrounded by a full-blown restaurant. It's now called Senses, and the place makes you believe it's possible to lead a life of calm.
On tiny Grace Street, a few steps off Wisconsin Avenue below the canal, Senses feels like a discovery every time you return. You expect a bell will jingle when you open the door and a beautiful parchment-skinned elderly woman in a time-faded cashmere cardigan will greet you in a voice that echoes the bell. Her accent will be French.
Instead of a bell, classical music, maybe opera, is what you hear when you open the door. And the person who greets you is youngish. The accent, however, is French. And the room really does have the subtle loveliness you might have expected. The walls are the shade of whipped cream, with bright splashes of just a few abstract watercolors. The carpet looks like sand combed into geometric designs. On the tables, white butcher paper protects the cloth in the French manner; each is set with a small silvery lamp under a beaded shade and a pair of trim silver salt and pepper shakers.
Your eye is drawn to the glass-fronted pastry case; that, after all, is center stage. Fruit tarts are piled with the plumpest berries in precarious hillocks, glazed with reduced juices rather than commercial gels. Chocolate tortes are so dark and glistening, you expect they could leave you with a caffeine high. The decorations are as precise as a jewel cutter's. And the cookies -- an entire case of them -- look worthy of the world's finest teas or sherries. These are the work of Bruno Feldeisen, who gained some fame as pastry chef at New York's Four Seasons Hotel.
The rest of the menu is orchestrated by Xavier Deshayes, a Canadian chef who is still learning Washington's ways. His menu is small -- about eight entrees at dinner, and only soups or salads as appetizers. He has also devised menus for breakfast, brunch, lunch and tea. A quiet interlude is now a possibility at any time of day and into the evening.
This is a restaurant born for brunch. Georgetown is at its quietest on Sundays, and Senses lulls you into tranquillity. The cooking is soft and sweet, foods of delicate color and gentle texture. The yolks in the eggs Benedict flow slowly under your fork, the hollandaise is lemony and nearly disappears on your tongue, and smoked salmon provides a calmer base than Canadian bacon. The English muffin carries the theme too far -- it should be crisply toasted rather than softly pale -- but all conspires to make this inevitably rich dish taste as light as morning sunshine. The breakfast and brunch menus sometimes offer hazelnut-ricotta or lemon-souffle pancakes, and French toast that's a celebration, an eggy brioche in a flowery tart-sweet orange sauce. The bread basket is particularly suited to brunch, with its nutty fruited tea breads.
The first courses at brunch are particularly refreshing, from diced fruit salad steeped in orange juice, to gazpacho, to a wonderful green salad, simply dressed with olive oil emulsion and accompanied by a drift of white house-made cheese. (At dinner a Caesar salad with freshly crisped croutons and shards of baked Parmesan reaffirms that this chef understands what makes a salad great.) As of late last month, Senses was still awaiting its liquor license, but offered punches of watermelon or raspberry as a pretty alternative.
Brunch can include a couple of rude awakenings: Omelets can be overcooked and tough, nothing a Frenchman would want to own up to. And fried potatoes with mushrooms are greasy, and their texture suggests precooking. Most surprising, a warm chocolate cake is gummy and tastes far too much of sugar.
Too much -- that's a recurrent problem, especially at lunch and dinner. Lamb chops with a fetching mustard tang and homey spaetzle are buried in sauce and vegetable garnishes. A chicken breast swamped by vegetables is smothered in crab that tastes as if it belonged on another plate. Salmon, on the other hand, shines on its own, with just a thin veneer of herb paste and a bed of creamy skin-on mashed potatoes; its red wine sauce is superfluous but not intrusive. Miniature ravioli are filled with a dab of earthy cheese and swabbed with a lovely pale green sauce of English peas. A touch of vanilla serves as a reminder of sweetness without any actual sugar; it's fashionable, but unnecessary. Risottos -- which are the mainstay at lunch and also offered at dinner -- are comforting and creamy, with just the right bite to each grain of rice. The nicest dish I tried at dinner, though, was one night's simple salmon-and-corn chowder, with no extraneous flavors but a crunch of near-raw, very fresh corn kernels.
The sleeper on Senses' menu is at lunch. The salmon burger is a dazzler. It's juicy and fresh, bound with a bit of tofu (don't flinch; it works) and piled on a buttery toasted brioche roll with a rich brown tangle of fried onions and mushrooms. This is no ascetic health-food sandwich. The bread soaks up those aromatic pan juices, and the whole thing tastes as succulent as foie gras. The house-made potato chips and onion rings alongside seem as light as crudites.
There's no passing by the pastry case unscathed. Though the lemon meringue tart could use a lot more lemon and a lot less sugar, a chocolate-covered dome is exquisitely creamy, bittersweet and potent with coffee flavor. Tarts of pecans or maca-damias are buttery and crunchy, especially if you look for the well-toasted ones. The fruit tarts are gems through and through.
What lingers most after a meal at Senses, though, is the sense of its niceness. This is a warm and personal restaurant where the invitation to return seems as genuine as your inclination to do so.
Restaurant space is ever more expensive; tables are smaller and packed closer together. That means there often isn't room for a wine bucket on the table or at its side. And even spacious restaurants are now tending to hold the opened bottles of white wine in ice buckets at the bar, or otherwise far from their owners' table. All of which is leading to a new problem: Not only are the diners at the mercy of the waiter to reach and pour their wine, but also, as two groups in one week reported to me, the wine can be accidentally poured for other customers, shortchanging the people who paid for it. Are diners going to have to start carrying marking pens to verify the level after each pour? -- P.C.R.