Written by Alexa Ray Joel. Walking into Sen NYC, I feel like I’m entering the most seductive, trendy, and intimate club in all Manhattan. And I’m rather taken aback: This is certainly not the casual Sen I regularly frequent in my laid-back hometown of Sag Harbor. This is a sophisticated, city Sen. This sexy Japanese haunt is the epitome of understated décor: polished wooden slats and bark line the walls, and white-washed exposed-brick contrasts elegantly with dark-woods and brown leather. The dim tangerine-tinged lighting makes for glowing ambiance.
As it goes with all things (and people): Enticing looks are only truly enchanting when matched by a deliciously rich, fulfilling, satisfyingly substance … right? I’m at Sen to dine with my dearest friends and associates, Matthew Berritt and Devorah Rose. The restaurant’s charismatic owner, Tora Matsuoka, meets us at the table. We toast with imported, non-pasteurized, and undiluted canned Kikusui Fungachi sake. Tora illustrates the philosophy and technique behind Sen NYC’s cuisine: “We don’t only take time sourcing ingredients, we make painstaking efforts to source ingredients of ingredients — from our sauces to our cocktail components.” We start off with the classic Japanese munchies, kuromame edamame with sea salt, and I can instantly taste the freshness and nuttiness. Even the sea salt seems to taste more satisfying. Our next serving was another specialty, the delectable shaved Wagyu ribeye steak, seasoned with green onion, mikado teriyaki-sauce, and sesame seeds. The ribeye is thinly sliced and rolled with a special scallion native to Tokyo, then skewered and cooked over white coals, which adds depth to the meat’s flavor. The three of us relish it to the last bite, while quenching our thirst with katana, a simple, dry sake. However, one true standout dish is the buttery live scallops, which are mouth watering and seasoned with black volcanic rock salt. Another superb sashimi dish, Alaskan king crab, transports me right back to the authentically sea-tinged freshness of the famous crabs at Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami Beach.
Although fish at Sen is so fresh that I almost feel it should have remained in the sea, it’s time to move on to sushi. We sample a delectable and enticing assortment of sushi that is artfully arrayed to resemble a rainbow and served on thin, rectangles of white porcelain framed with purple orchids. I must say: The presentation looks almost too beautiful to eat. But not quite. The toro bluefin tuna has a rich, buttery consistency to match its pale pink color. I tend to prefer salty over savory, so I keep coming back for the classic bigeye red tuna. This is the most succulent and satisfying red tuna I have ever had the immense pleasure of sampling. Its salty, meaty texture matchs perfectly with the subtle earthiness of the premium short-grain Japanese rice. I am convinced nothing can taste better until I take my first heavenly bite of New Zealand king salmon. As the endearingly passionate chef in the cult foodie film “Big Night” says, “To eat good food is to be close to God.” I think I’ll tweak that quote: “To eat Sen NYC’s New Zealand king salmon sashimi is to be close to God.” The crisp purity and smooth-as-silk texture of this particular salmon is unlike any fish I have ever eaten. Its freshness makes it seem as if it came to Sen by rush delivery from a fishing boat — and it has. This silky fish is much less fatty than typical salmon (I call it the ultimate girly fish), but it still retains the most mouth-wateringly fresh flavor of all the species of fish we are enjoying tonight.
Those of you who prefer more savory dishes will swoon over the playfully named chicken lollipop. This delectable, buttery, melt-in-your-mouth dish is basically a fresh take on American fried chicken wings. It’s coated in a scrumptiously crunchy batter flavored with imported Japanese beer and soy sauce, and topped with a dab of potato salad garnished with green onion. Perfectly tender, the delightful combination of crunchy, creamy, and salty melts in my mouth. This dish brings back memories of my favorite childhood comfort food: fried buttermilk corn fritters with spicy paprika mayo, which my father and I frequently relished at the popular foodie joint Al Forno in Providence, R.I.
The one thing I am hesitant to sample is the uni. Luckily for me, my dining companions are kindred ultra-foodies. Devorah and Matthew happen to be fervent uni aficionados. They deliberate passionately over the contrasting flavors of two served unis. They finally award the star to the Maine uni. While the mustardy yellow California uni is smooth and sweetly satisfying, the light brown Maine uni has a salty, earthy richness that truly sets it apart.
I believe Sen NYC is simply the best modern Japanese restaurant I’ve ever experienced. The impeccably attentive service and simple yet beautiful décor make Sen appealing in atmosphere and energy alone. Combine this with exquisite menu choices that are prepared by sourcing ingredients of ingredients, and something extraordinary is the result. Add the chef’s experimental spin on more traditional Japanese fare, and what do we have, food-centric folks? The highest quality, the topmost shelf, the crème de la crème: Sen NYC.
12 West 21st Street