When Presque Isle Downs & Casino first opened its doors in 2007, the landmark venue in nearby Erie, Pennsylvania, quickly became a destination retreat for enthusiastic racing fans and gamers near and far.
But behind the bright lights and the handsome payouts happening every day on the casino floor, a small but determined restaurant was carving a niche all its own.
For more than three years, La Bonne Vie pleased local diners and visiting gamers alike with a well-executed if modest menu of steaks and seafood, and a specialty in classic preparations.
But for everything going right in the kitchen, the leaders of La Bonne Vie couldn't help but think they could do their guests a better service by offering a more complete dining experience worthy of the fine food served every day.
"We offer so much more than just a restaurant," says General Manager Joey Marshall.
In essence, what they wanted was to offer destination dining that tapped into more senses than merely taste. And so began the gradual transformation toward what would become Sensory 3 Restaurant & Lounge, a celebration of taste, sight, and sound that made its debut in March 2011, after months of retooling the space and thoughtful consideration of the concept.
"A lot of people were very concerned when they learned we were changing," says Marshall. "But besides the atmosphere and the name, the restaurant has been very consistent."
Among the key changes were an opening up of the once-compartmentalized dining room into much airier, welcoming confines. Gone is the feel of a bygone era — what Marshall affectionately refers to as "that old, Great Gatsby vibe." In its place is a more contemporary, lively space.
What didn't change? Most notably Sensory 3's unwavering mission to serve the finest steaks and seafood around.
Of course, perception and reality sometimes need a helping hand. To comfort those who were resistant to change, Sensory 3 initially denoted beloved dishes from the restaurant's La Bonne Vie days with a simple "LBV Signature" designation on the menu.
But as the months have passed since the launch of Sensory 3, any concerns over the kitchen's direction have long since been put to rest. As Marshall puts it, the restaurant's devoted fans have come to recognize that change, for Sensory 3, never meant turning away from its specialties — but augmenting those specialties with exciting new options.
This month, the restaurant unveiled a new menu that more deftly incorporates the classic specialties of La Bonne Vie with the more daring creations of Executive Sous Chef Mike Davis. In fact, the majority of La Bonne Vie's offerings remain on the menu; they're just more robustly complemented these days.
"La Bonne Vie's menu was actually quite small," says Marshall. "The new menu is much more eclectic, with a much wider variety of proteins." Indeed, from Sea Bass to Bento Boxes, and from Free Range Chicken to French Pork Chops, the beautiful presentations springing forth from the kitchen are a most welcome surprise for the senses.
A Sleek Departure
Just outside the doors of Sensory 3, the main floor at Presque Isle Downs & Casino teems every hour of the day with enthusiasts indulging their passions with countless thrilling games of chance.
But inside, a warm sense of tranquility washes over each evening guest. At the entrance, a large window offers an up-close glimpse of the action unfolding each night in the kitchen, and a fireplace establishes a sense of soothing serenity.
The main dining room is encircled on three sides by welcoming high-backed banquettes, each hardwood table softly lit by warm recessed lighting or handsome silver fixtures that hover over the cozy booths on the back wall. At the center of the room, 10 high-top tables of varying heights set the stage for fine dining and easy conversation. White candles flicker atop each table, as a welcome blend of new-age music gently emanates throughout the room.
Lining Sensory 3's wood-paneled walls are nine equally spaced television screens — but don't settle in looking for a ballgame. Here, the screens serve not as portals to the world of cable TV, but as engaging pieces of art unto themselves. Some screens slowly cascade through a procession of Impressionist paintings, while others celebrate the wonders of nature.
Situated adjacent to the dining room, the restaurant's snug, sophisticated bar area is a sort of living celebration of the accolades already showered upon the young venue — including prestigious honors from both Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator magazines.
In addition to its wide selection of beer and fine wines, Sensory 3 is regarded for its noteworthy assortment of scotches, including a wide array of single-malt varieties ranging from Macallan to Glenfiddich.
Steady Hand at the Helm
A transplant from Pittsburgh, Executive Sous Chef Mike Davis found his passion for cooking as a youngster.
"At six years old, I wanted to own my own restaurant," Davis says with a smile, offering homage to the PBS chefs he adored emulating as a child.
Davis learned his craft in the kitchens of renowned Iron City Chef Tony Piaz, then honed his skills at the acclaimed Matthew's Trattoria in Erie. When the opportunity arose, he joined the Presque Isle Downs & Casino family of restaurants and took the reins in the kitchen amid the excitement of Sensory 3's grand opening.
Whereas Presque Isle Downs & Casino's other restaurants center around the venue's outdoor horse-racing season, Davis welcomes the year-round thrill that accompanies life at Sensory 3.
"As racing season ends, our other restaurants are looking to slow down," he says. "We're expecting to heat up."
And as Sensory 3 heats up, its guests will warm up to a newly christened menu that's loaded with time-tested favorites as well as adventuresome new takes on classic dishes. Davis revels in the freedom that came with helping usher the new menu to fruition — and the opportunity to indulge his passions along the way.
"I like fusion," the chef says, "giving people new things to try — or even familiar things presented in ways they've never seen."
Not surprisingly, the new menu is a veritable showplace of Davis' sensibilities. Among the chef's favorites are Sous Vide Short Ribs. The French technique, which involves cooking at very low temperatures in a hot water bath, results in unfailingly tender meat — and a new experience for many diners. The ribs are served in a morel mushroom Cabernet sauce and paired with pasta purses stuffed with a blend of six cheeses.
Sharing space with the menu's classic steak and seafood entrees are quintessentially Davis creations such as Cumin and Coriander Crusted Ahi Tuna, served with roasted tomatoes, olives, and tzatziki sauce; and Seafood Fusilli (pictured, above left), featuring tender spiral pasta in garlic sauce and laden with fresh grilled lobster, scampi, and snow crab claws.
Those seeking more traditional steakhouse options will find plenty to savor as well, from the massive 24-ounce Bone-In Ribeye to Lobster Wellington accompanied by a sherry cream sauce.
An All-New Vibe at Night
If Sensory 3's menu remains true to the classics, the mood on weekends has taken a welcome turn toward the lively.
As evening fades into night each Friday and Saturday, Sensory 3's dining scene gives way to a more seductive ambiance. Formerly affiliated with a local radio station that broadcast live from the club, Sensory 3 has newly taken the reins of its weekend lounge nights, welcoming its own DJ to fashion a tableau of sound perfectly suited to the clientele.
The change offers more flexibility to mix up tempos and styles, and to make each guest — whether an evening diner who's inclined to linger or a late-night partier — feel at home.
The lounge transition begins by freeing up space in the center of the dining room — the better to clear the way for mingling, dancing, or whatever late-night guests have in mind.
The house lights, too, give way from the warm glow of recessed lamps to eye-catching aurora lights and soothing LED panels that drift in and out in intensity and color with the beat of the music.
"We're always trying something new," says Marshall, who exults in the newfound flexibility. Whereas the demands of live radio occasionally made dinner guests feel rushed, Sensory 3's new lounge nights ensure that all guests feel welcome regardless of the hour.
Whether it's early evening or late night, Marshall calls Sensory 3's clientele an even mix of destination diners and hungry casino visitors. Naturally, word of mouth about the new Sensory 3 is spreading fast on the casino floor.
"Of course, we've always been of the mind-set to turn that other 50 percent of diners on to our casino as well!" she says with a smile.