Sen Sakana, a sleek, modern restaurant with an enviable location between Times Square and Fifth Avenue in New York City had to close during the COVID-19 lockdown after being open for only two and a half years. But there was a silver lining. “My rabbi, Rabbi Gerkov of Chabad of Passaic County, had been after me for years to open a kosher restaurant,” said owner Allan Wartski, who has been in the business for 30 years. When pandemic restrictions began to loosen, he decided to reopen Sen Sakana as a kosher restaurant. “We went to sleep and woke up kosher,” he quipped in an interview and tasting at the restaurant.
Sen Sakana serves Nikkei cuisine, a style of food that developed in Peru when Japanese immigrants came over in large numbers beginning in the late 1800s. More a melding of cuisines than a fusion, Nikkei uses the structure of Japanese cooking with warm, Peruvian spices. Peru has a reputation for fine dining, and its Nikkei cuisine has taken top honors. Central Restaurante in Lima was named the fourth best restaurant in the world in 2021.
Nikkei cuisine has been garnering fans throughout Europe and is starting to become known in the United States. Sen Sakana, which means “1,000 fish” after the number of species in Peruian waters, was the first Nikkei restaurant in New York. A few restaurants have started serving a small selection of Nikkei dishes, but none have the depth and breadth of Sen Sakana. And none are kosher.
The Sen Sakana kitchen is headed by Executive Chef Mina Newman, who began working with Wartski in his other properties including the Edison Ballroom, an elegant events venue in Manhattan, and Christos Steakhouse in Queens. Newman was excited to introduce the food of her country; her mother is from Peru and she spent summers there as a child.
Before opening the restaurant in 2017, Wartski and Newman visited Peru to research the cuisine and plan the menu, which hasn’t changed much due to Newman’s meticulous sourcing of kosher ingredients and experimentation to provide similar flavors. Newman got to know a Chabad rabbi in Tokyo who was able to find and produce kosher versions of key ingredients in Japanese cooking like black miso; Yuzu, a citrus sauce; a vinegar- and salt-based soy sauce; and bonito, a fish that is smoked, cured, dried, steamed, fermented and smoked over three to six months, that Newman calls the foundation of Japanese cooking.
She uses ingredients such as avocado butter and coconut milk as dairy substitutes. Shellfish is gone from the menu, of course, but Newman doesn’t miss it. She makes a similar dish using fluke marinated in lime juice. As the cooking staff gains experience, the quality gets even better, she noted proudly.
Japanese cooking techniques involve treating each ingredient separately and “gingerly,” rather than cooking them all together. “You have respect for each ingredient,” said Newman. Fish is marinated in soy sauce for just a few seconds. The Peruvian touch comes from spices that add flavor more than heat, with Aji Amarillo peppers the “workhorse.”
Introducing Nikkei cuisine in New York City has been a learning curve for the Sen Sakana team. Wartski said they rewrote the menu so the ingredients were more understandable and familiar to Americans. Trained servers are happy to provide explanations and guidance.
As lights turn on in offices again—Wartski estimates about 15% of workers are back—and the sound of music can be heard in Broadway theaters, customers are returning to restaurants. Sen Sakana reopened in August for dinner and has recently started serving lunch. Many of the customers are former fans who don’t notice a difference now that the restaurant is kosher. Takeout and meal delivery will begin soon, including a special item for the corporate crowd—a beautifully styled box with 10 rolls of sushi, guaranteed to make clients or employees happy.
At a tasting organized by Chef Newman, my dining companions and I sampled a variety of Sen Sakana specialties. The common theme among the dishes was intense flavor from blends of spices that enhanced each dish and made every bite count.
We started with charred edamame, served with Peruvian crispy corn, togarashi (a Japanese spice blend) and sesame oil. This was the first of several dishes that I thought I knew, but I got a pleasant surprising jolt from the bold seasoning. Japanese cucumbers were topped with crispy quinoa, Aji Amarillo and sesame oil. The soft and usually mild cucumbers came to life with the crispy, spicy topping.
We had two ceviche dishes. Classic fluke ceviche was bathed in ginger, lime juice and cilantro and paired with Peruvian cancha, a toasted corn that adds a contrasting texture and flavor. Ceviche Nikkei uses Yuzu Leche de Tigre, or Tiger’s Milk, a citrus-based marinade that cures the salmon, which was “torched” for a combination of melt-in-your-mouth silkiness and slightly smoked flavor. It was garnished with shiso, a Southeast Asia herb. Wild mushroom and vegan “cheddar” empanadas had meaty mushroom flavor from the mix of Shiitake, Cremini and Oyster mushrooms, surrounded by flaky pastry dough. I detected a subtle sweet note which I was told was from cacao.
There is a separate sushi kitchen and bar for the vast selection of classic maki (rolls) and sashimi (fish over rice). I took a bite of sushi anticipating the typical Japanese taste, but Peruvian spices gave it a very different flavor. Try the “Spicy, Smokey and Crunchie” rolls for the complete Nikkei experience with torched salmon, avocado, cucumber, asparagus, spicy mayo and Masago (fish eggs) topped with a round of jalapeno pepper. The Andes Yama roll contained faux crab topped with asparagus, oshiko (Japanese pickle), beet puree and chives. The rolls were served with gooseberries, small orange balls with a taste and texture that reminded me of a cross between a peach and a tomato.
I could have happily sunk into a couch at that point, but the tasting continued with two main-course selections. Quinoa crusted chicken breast was a revelation. The toasted quinoa surpassed the usual crumb coating and protected the juicy chicken inside. I will remember this technique for Pesach. It was served with a purple potato salad that was as pretty as it was tasty. Lomo Saltado is a beef stir fry with tomato and onions coated with a garlic soy sauce and served with crispy potatoes. This dish had a comfortably familiar Asian taste profile, wonderfully executed with tender lean strips of beef, crunchy fresh vegetables and crispy but light small sculptured potato balls on top. There are several more Nikkei fish and beef dishes on the menu and prime dry-aged steaks.
Our tasting ended with chocolate souffle, which is neither Japanese nor Peruvian but a delightful finale for any meal. In a Sen Sakana innovation, the traditional light egg-based souffle body encased a molten chocolate center for double chocolate deliciousness. It was served with a scoop of vegan chocolate ice cream. Make that triple chocolate deliciousness.
Sen Sakana has a full bar and a mevushal wine list. Nikkei meets spirits here with cocktails that use ingredients like lychee paste to add sweetness.
Sen Sakana, (https://sensakana.com) 28 West 44th Street, is open for lunch and dinner Monday through Thursday, with happy hour at the bar from 4:00 to 7:00 p.m. A private room is available for parties during the week and after Shabbat on Saturday evening.