Last year, Sag Harbor’s Sen celebrated its 25th anniversary.
During the winter leading up to last season, owners Jesse and Tora Matsuoka and Jeff Resnick executed a massive renovation, expanding the 120-year-old building’s dining room, staff housing, and kitchen capacity. They introduced an expansive new cocktail menu, as well as late-night dining. And although renovations were originally slated to be finished last April, Sen actually opened well into June, making the Fourth of July holiday by the skin of the owners’ teeth.
But it was well worth the wait in order to bring Sen into the next decade. The dining room seats 95 now, and the kitchen staff has an additional 600 square feet in which to cook. As a result, the catering menu and ambition has blossomed. (The restaurant puts no limit on the number of people they can feed off-premises.)
Sen began as a joint project between top-ranked Sumo wrestler Iwatora Kazutomo Matsuoka and restaurateur Jeff Resnick. Matsuoka impressed upon his Japanese ex-pat sons, Tora and Jesse, a strong work ethic, making them work their way up from low-level positions until he finally permitted them to move on to the front-of-the-house. That long, slow move to the top gave the Matsuoka boys the discipline they needed to survive the frenetic Sag Harbor summers.
These days, Jesse operates the restaurant’s day-to-day affairs, which includes, broadly, an ambitious saké program, as well as an equally ambitious culinary one. The Tokyo native impresses upon his chefs the importance of authenticity, often taking them on exploratory trips to Japan in order to learn the craft of Japanese cooking from the masters. Recent trips have yielded smart menu complexities, as well as special events, like a multi-tiered ramen dinner that features numerous specialized noodles, most of which are made by hand.
Sen occupies a drool-worthy slice of Sag Harbor real estate, and while that’s surely some of the appeal (is there a better people-watching spot than one of Sen’s window-adjacent seats?), it’s only some of it. Regular menu standouts include the ramen, of course, the finest iteration of which comes with a tonkotsu (read: roasted pork bone) broth, pickled ginger, bamboo shoots, and an egg.
Fish is always off-the-boat fresh, the antidote to the blues so often manifested out east when it comes to a true dearth in the ethnic food department. There are flash-fried shishito peppers, steamed pork buns with hoisin and pickles, and tempura rock shrimp served with aioli. And all that is before you even get to the rolls, which are ample, tasty, and unparalleled east of the Canal.
Jesse Matsuoka, himself a saké sommelier, has brought gravitas to Sen’s drink program, featuring Brooklyn Kura junmai ginjo nama saké on tap, as well as bottles of about 20 premium sakés by the bottle, the rarest of which, Born Dreams Come True junmai daiginjo saké, goes for $420 for the liter. The aged beverage is traditionally “gifted to monarchs, presidents, and national treasures,” but if it’s not in your budget, there are glasses and bottles available of numerous styles of saké, many of which are plenty affordable.
There is homage paid, too, to the distilled Japanese spirit known as shōchū, which can be made from barley, sweet potatoes, or rice.
Two-and-a-half decades after opening their doors, then, Sen continues to push the boundaries of Japanese tradition with innovative, smart, and comprehensive food and drink. The renovation has breathed new life into an old space, yes, but the bones — the skill inherent of the guys behind the curtain — remain intact. As ever, Sen is dressed to impress.
Sen is hosting the final meal of the season in its Chef’s Dinner series on Sunday, March 31, beginning at 6 PM. This eight-course paired dinner will feature Suntory Whisky Distillery from Japan, fresh fish from Gosman’s in Montauk, and Uni from Portland, ME. Tickets are $75, plus tax and gratuity. Seating is limited. To make your reservation, call 631-725-1774. To learn more, visit www.senrestaurant.com.