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At Sienna, a Jill among the Jacks

A while back, a sister-in-law disagreed with my preference for a particular fine restaurant. "There's just no atmosphere there," she said. The comment shows how important atmosphere can be to diners at the high end: 2 Vine with its bustle; the wooden elegance of Rooney's; or the clean unpretentiousness of Max. All have their appeal.

Sienna owner David Alkaher gets this. "You can get a steak for $14 anywhere, but it won't be this steak, and it won't be here in this space," he says. The room has great character, with its almost cathedral-like ceilings, old wooden floor, gorgeous bar, and two walls of windows looking into the heart of the city.

Sienna is also distinguished by having a female head chef, Jill Mondry-Doebler (the high-end kitchen is a bit of boys club). "I was always kind of a tomboy," she says. When Alkaher posted for a chef in 2002, he interviewed many, and had Mondry-Doebler in four times. "She trailed for a day, then ran the kitchen for a day," he remembers. "She just blew us all away."

Mondry-Doebler and sous-chef Asa Mott maintain a large menu of tricky and trendy things, changing it seasonally (as any fine place ought). The menu is divided into firsts (appetizers), seconds (salads), and thirds (entrées). Be ready to dig deep; firsts and seconds range from $6.50 to $11, entrées $16 to $35.

I made only one trip, sadly on a night when Mondry-Doebler was off. But independent arts reporter Isobel Neuberger, radio foodie Michael Warren Thomas, and I cut a wide swath through the choices.

Isobel and I found her appetizer --- pan-seared scallops wrapped in prosciutto with an orange serrano broth --- outstanding ($9.75). It was a textural playground, with soft scallops, crusty ham, and wisps of crisp potato and leek that kept their crunch in the broth. Michael wasn't thrilled with the broth, but he's a Philistine.

Sweet corn custard with lobster, pancetta, and wild mushrooms was another winner, though the lobster was a bit tough ($11). We appreciated the fine, glassy custard. Our lone second was a gorgonzola soufflé that had fallen, and didn't have that gorgonzola bite.

Isobel had Sienna Wellington ($28.95), which the waiter insisted be cooked less than she wanted (the thinking being that you can cook it longer, but starting over would be an ordeal). It was a perfect medium rare for my taste, and the pastry had a thin outer shell over a beguiling interior that had soaked up the flavors of the dish. More of the wild mushroom duxelles inside would have been nice.

Barramundi came with a tequila-lime sauce, corn-scallion griddle cakes, and seared beans ($24). This is an expensive fish, and perhaps I'm the Philistine now, but it didn't seem particularly special. And the griddle cakes were a misstep; too dense and a tad bitter.

Braised pork belly --- mmm... pork belly --- pulled us into the pork trio ($24). The fatty part was fab, and we'd have liked more. I also dug the Kurabota ham and zucchini taco with a corn vinaigrette; its fresh tortilla was a beautiful thing. The third part, pork tenderloin, was a bit dry and undistinguished next to its compadres.

Alkaher asked how our service had been. Our waiter worked hard, but wasn't smooth. Though I wasn't bothered, Alkaher was, noting that at this price point, your expectations are and should be high for every part of the experience. True enough.

Michael was happy to see New York state wines on the menu, but disappointed when the waiter said none were available by the glass. That turns out not to be true; Sienna has a couple, including Sheldrake Point Barrel Reserve Chardonnay ($8). The wine list looks stout to this teetotaler. Alkaher is proud of it, though he bemoans having to constantly find new Pinots "because of that stupid movie."

Sienna is a beautiful place with some fine features. Did it meet those high expectations in every way? Not quite, but I enjoyed Sienna enough to try again, and particularly on a night when Mondry-Doebler is in the house. The six-course tasting menu on the weekend sounds like the place to start ($55). If you're stuck in a high-end rut, it's worth a try.

Sienna, 151 St. Paul St., 546-4070. Hours: Dinner Monday-Thursday, 5:30-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 5:30-11 p.m..

Food tip

Congratulations to everyone that worked to bring the New York Wine & Culinary Center to Canandaigua, so close to Rochester. The NYWCC opened June 17 and has classes on topics ranging from making cherry wine to the delights of heirloom tomatoes. Call 394-7070 to make reservations or visit for details on all classes, wine sampling flights, and much more.

--- Michael Warren Thomas

Check for details on Michael's broadcast schedule on WYSL 1040 AM.

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