You’ll be forgiven for thinking it’s the old Dixie Donuts as you walk up to Sen Organic Small Plate. After all, it’s hardly been a year since the giant pink doughnut gracing the outside of the building in Carytown ascended to that great bakery in the sky.
But Sen’s décor, the food — the experience — is completely different.
The walls are mint green and covered in painted lotus flowers and wise proverbs. Buddha, in fountain form, sits among the plants and containers of tea that are displayed in the front window. There’s ample outdoor seating, making you almost forget you’re in a parking lot. Frankly, it feels more like stepping into a small tea boutique than a Vietnamese restaurant.
Then there’s the food. A slew of traditional Vietnamese dishes that show French colonial influence grace the menu, with plenty of vegan and gluten-free options.
We start with the smallest plates. Organic feta trigon ($6), a homemade pastry filled with feta and topped with herbs and garlic, is crisp and lightly cheesy — and indeed small. The fresh spring roll ($5) arrives almost instantly, making it clear that it’s been sitting around a while. It’s a standard spring roll and it suffers from dry pork and shrimp that smells less than optimal. The accompanying peanut sauce is thin and lacks the expected nutty punch.
The bright notes are the vegetables — a consistent theme across all my visits. Every time, in every dish, they’re top-notch and striking in their freshness, especially given that spring hasn’t arrived when I visit.
The Sen lotus salad ($10) is light and fresh but could use a stronger dressing to bring all of the elements of the dish together. Thankfully though, the shrimp is fresh, lightly cooked and delicately sweet. The Saigon-style chicken wings ($10) dazzle. Fried crispy and then coated in a savory-sweet sauce made of honey, garlic, shallots and quite possibly magic, it’s one of my favorite bites.
The server makes a recommendation: She always gets the bun cha gio with beef rib-eye ($15), she says. A drizzle of fish sauce makes the dish sing. The vegetables are crisp and fresh, and the lightly fried spring rolls that accompany it — also available as an appetizer — add a warmth and depth of flavor with their crunch and mushroom-laden interiors. The beef is slightly smoky, lightly seasoned and provides a rich, savory inflection — I simply can’t get enough.
I try the supercharged pho ($15) with beef brisket, meatballs, beef tendon, chicken and organic egg. The broth is light and salty with a hint of sweetness that balances out the spicy touches that I add from the standard additions — sriracha, hoisin, bean sprouts, basil and jalapeño.
The Sen banh mi ($10) is on the small side but tasty, although it’s a little pâté forward for my taste. Not a fan of liver? Ask your server to leave it off or order a chicken banh mi ($10), which substitutes juicy grilled chicken for the pork.
Café phin Vietnam ($6), Sen’s Vietnamese coffee, is a treat. Served at your table in a tiny, silver pour-over container, the coffee slowly drips into a pool of sweetened condensed milk. It drips for a painfully long time, but, relax, your patience will be rewarded. Give it a stir and enjoy the bitterness of the strong coffee that the creamy sweetness of the milk gently tempers — it’s chocolate milk for grownups. The organic French press coffee ($5) also is good, but expect a far smaller portion than your typical cup of joe.
Sen’s wine and beer lists are short, as is the dessert menu, but bitter-sweet chocolate stuffed inside pastry — the organic braided cara-choc biscoff — with vegan coconut ice cream ($7) is a nice ending to the meal.
If you live in Richmond long enough, the phrase “the old” and the former business’ name is attached to places all over the city. But if Sen Organic Small Plate continues to showcase its fresh, organic take on Vietnamese, it just may start replacing some of those old memories with a few new ones of its own. S
Sen Organic Small Plate
Mondays and Wednesdays-Fridays 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-10 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
2901 W. Cary St.