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RENO DINING: Sezmu Restaurant, Disappointing?

Chris Walker Versus Sep 29, 2008 01:15 PM

Has anyone else dined at Sezmu in Reno and found it disappointing? I’ve eaten there at least five times and have been consistently underwhelmed. I’m wondering if anyone else has dined there and felt the same way.

I’ve been contemplating whether or not I should write this after my experience at Sezmu last Friday night. I’ve never felt the need to talk poorly about Sezmu in a public forum until now. In fact, I’ve always rooted for Sezmu. It seems like something Reno needs: a high-quality, locally-owned, fine dining restaurant worthy of joining the ranks of proven winners like LuLou’s and 4th Street Bistro. Reno has too few upscale, what I guess you could call “Bay Area” level restaurants, as it is. I think that’s why I’ve been so willing to let obvious missteps slide in the past, I want to believe that Sezmu is excellent. I want Sezmu to succeed. I want to recommend it to friends; I want to want to go back. But Friday night was a breaking point. My dining experience was beyond dismal.

My girlfriend and I arrived slightly after 7:00 and were immediately seated. We ordered cocktails. Before we could make a proper toast, our server was table-side asking us if we were ready to order. He hadn’t even told us what was on the chef’s tasting menu. When I asked what was on it, he didn’t apologize or acknowledge his error, instead he breezed through the night’s courses and said he’d give us a couple minutes to decide. True to his word, he re-approached our table within minutes and, apparently annoyed, asked, “So, you guys eating tonight?” I was so taken back by the comment and the rushed nature of the service I couldn’t even process how rude and uncalled for it was until later.

My girlfriend ordered a la carte, I opted for the tasting menu. Her grilled corn and summer squash soup was decent but the cornmeal crusted “chicken nuggets”, served behind the large soup bowl, were dry. Furthermore, it appeared as if the nuggets were supposed to come with mustard but all that was on the plate was a faint yellow trail where mustard might’ve once resided. We weren’t sure if it was intentional or not. The risotto in my Chanterelle risotto with frog legs was clearly undercooked. The frog legs were an interesting touch but, ultimately, the dish fell short.

The second course of the tasting menu was a tomato purée poured over a shrimp concoction shaped into a cylinder. The presentation was nice but there was no flavor. I kept taking bites, trying to find the nuances, hoping to taste something. It never happened. The dish can only be described as the blandest thing I’ve ever eaten, it was completely forgettable. My girlfriend had the artichoke and green bean salad with picholine olives, capricious goat cheese, and lemon vinaigrette. The goat cheese was wonderful, creamy and subtle, but the vinaigrette was insipid and the beans were raw.

While we were still working on our second courses, a server tried to bring out our mains. Upon seeing that we hadn’t finished our second courses yet, they were thrown under a heat lamp (evident by how hot the plates were). My girlfriend’s halibut suffered the most as it came out dry. My lamb was cooked perfectly but obviously lost some of its internal temperature sitting under the lamp. The side dishes were embarrassing. The lamb was served with a mint cous cous, and while I appreciated it as a unique play on the lamb and mint combination, it epically failed. The other side dish contained the same artichokes as my girlfriend’s salad and added nothing worthwhile to the plate. Only the figs that were served with the lamb were good or made sense. The halibut’s side dishes were no better, a panzanella salad containing huge chunks of the same bread as the bread served in the bread basket before dinner, and a balsamic reduction that failed to bring cohesiveness to the dish. It was so bad my girlfriend spent more time trying to figure out if the bread in the panzanella was in fact the bread from the bread basket than she did eating the halibut or the salad.

Redemption came in the form of dessert. I can’t remember the name of what we had (the Sezmu dessert menu on the website hasn’t been updated, it was a French word though) but it consisted of salted, caramel ice cream, a round puddle of caramel in the center of the plate, and a delightful, layered chocolate cake. It was undoubtedly the best part of the meal. At this point, we’d all but been abandoned by our server, his focus was on the table of four sitting next to us. Luckily the bartender, who also provides table service, had taken his place.

With dessert finished and our wine consumed, one might think an espresso or cappuccino would be in order. Our server didn’t see it that way. Finally coming back to our table, he didn’t ask how our meal was or if we’d care for coffee. He placed the check by my side said, “Take care of that whenever you’re ready.” Then he walked away. Somewhere between violently livid and sullenly disappointed, I reluctantly tipped a scant 15% and we left.

Service has always been an issue at Sezmu. I remember the first time we ate there, our server was so condescending and treated us like such novices I finally had to say, “You must get a lot of bad diners in here.” I figured she must have dealt with so many uneducated patrons she just assumed everyone who came through the door was an idiot. I didn’t appreciate it. Concerning the food, there are some good things on the menu at Sezmu. For instance, the Waygu flap steak and Fulton Valley chicken breast are fantastic. (Then again, when you’re a competent chef, as head chef and co-owner Larry Dunning undoubtedly is, it’s pretty hard to mess up a quality piece of meat. A Waygu flap steak is almost like a free pass.) But at the same time a lot of things miss. Take the seared scallops with black beluga lentil salad, tiny tomatoes, and gypsy peppers. While all individually great (Sezmu’s seared scallops are some of the best I’ve ever tasted), there’s no “Wow, this really works” moment when you combine everything into one bite. The flavor profiles of each ingredient never properly mesh and all you’re left with is fantastic scallops on a plate otherwise full of disappointment. At Sezmu there is often more emphasis on style over substance, presentation over functionality.

I won’t say I’ve written off Sezmu for good, and I attribute that to what I said in the beginning: I’m rooting for Sezmu. I sincerely want it to be wonderful, a place I look forward to eating at and taking friends to. (I took my entire office staff there a week prior. Per usual, some dishes failed while other’s - like the Waygu - were phenomenal.) But after last Friday, after the combination of blatantly bad food and atrocious service, I’ve got to stop pretending it’s exceptional just because I want it to be exceptional.

I’m wondering if anyone has sentiments similar to mine, which is ultimately why I’m posting this in a public forum.

  1. Chris Walker Versus Nov 7, 2008 10:35 AM

    Wow. Two comments back-to-back praising Sezmu from brand new users who have yet to fill out their profile or comment anywhere else on the CHOWHOUND message boards? I'd be remiss to accuse anyone of anything but it seems awfully peculiar.

    JollyEater (assuming you're just a new CHOWHOUNDER and not some Sezmu representative): Perhaps within your explanation of how good Sezmu is lies (one of) my problem. Yes, you can taste every ingredient but they don't always come together. There isn't a cohesiveness that causes a "wow" factor when eating the meal, as I explained in the original post. As for chef Dunning's sourcing of "fabulous and sustainable products", I do applaud that. I wish more restaurants in Reno did the same. Perhaps that's one of the reasons I'm not ready to outright dismiss Sezmu as I have Reno's deplorable Bistro 7.

    I will be dining at Sezmu again soon. Should I enjoy my meal I will follow-up with something positive. And if I don't, well, more of the same.

    By the way, I love how no one will address the god-awful panzanella salad. If you enjoyed that thing (when it was on the menu) I seriously question your palate.

    1. j
      JollyEater Nov 6, 2008 11:31 AM

      I've always had a wonderful experience at Sezmu. The staff has always been over the top friendly and warm as well as unassuming. The flavors are subtle but balanced=> elegant. You can actually taste what each ingredient contributes as opposed to being overwhelmed by too strong of flavors. As far as product, people should appreciate a chef sourcing fabulous and sustainable products because most don't. I find the elegantly balanced accompaniments to compliment the fabulous mains and always look forward to trying several courses everytime we go. I'm always looking for an excuse to eat at Sezmu and can't wait to go back again.

      1. a
        adamson Nov 3, 2008 09:56 AM

        I've always had great experiences at Sezmu and send people there all the time. I was surprised to read some of the negative feedback here. Particularly with regard to Larry's food. His style is a little different, but he does a great job bringing out the natural flavors in high quality food.

        1. nancyhudson Oct 3, 2008 01:07 PM

          My meals have always been outstanding at Sezmu. I would say it is definitely my favorite Reno dining spot, and the food holds a top spot in favorites overall, however, I would have to agree that the servers are not all-that. I think they're capable - they just seem to need lessons in tact and approach, and, they're a bit condescending. I don't want a waiter who monopolizes the dinner conversation, either, but a warm personality is nice. Sometimes I just don't understand waitstaff - kill me with kindness - it reflects in the tip!

          2 Replies
          1. re: nancyhudson
            Chris Walker Versus Oct 20, 2008 01:09 PM

            Here's the problem with Sezmu's service: They treat you as if you should feel privileged to be there, rather than treating you as if they're happy to have you. That's not to imply I need my ass kissed, it's just to say a patron shouldn't feel unworthy the minute they arrive, they should feel appreciated. Kind of like a, "Hey, thanks. Out of all the restaurants in the city you chose ours. We'd like to show you that you made a great decision." I don't know, am I asking for too much?

            Since posting this I've been fortunate enough to dine at Ubuntu in Napa, CA and Lola in Cleveland, OH. Both of those meals are what I'd call "outstanding". The flavors were incredible, presentation made sense, service was professional and friendly and completely unpretentious. I thought about my experiences at Sezmu during both meals and I unwaveringly stand by my opinion that a lot of Sezmu's dishes don't work or fail to dazzle the taste buds.

            I've never walked out of Sezmu feeling elated however; Ubuntu was so good it made me consider taking up a vegetarian lifestyle; at Lola I have to keep myself from smiling the entire time because the food is so wonderfully delicious. Some might say it's unfair to compare a restaurant like Sezmu to that of Lola but I think it's okay because that - and correct me if I'm wrong - is what Sezmu aspires to be, a top tier restaurant. The truth of the matter is it's just not there yet.

            1. re: Chris Walker Versus
              nancyhudson Oct 23, 2008 08:51 PM

              Good post, and, spot on. BTW - dying to get to Ubuntu - thinking it may be during my Napa Valley Thanksgiving visit. Your post has inspired me to make it happen!

          2. SteveTimko Sep 30, 2008 04:12 PM

            In the other Sezmu thread one of the diners noted he had less than a satisfactory experience but came back leter and had a good meal.
            I've had nothing but good meals at Sezmu.

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