Sen Sakana – the kosher taste of New York

The minute you walk through the door, you feel pampered. You are greeted cheerfully with a smile and virtual embrace by a host or hostess.

 THE INTERIOR of Sen Sakana. (photo credit: Sen Sakana)
THE INTERIOR of Sen Sakana.
(photo credit: Sen Sakana)

NEW YORK – Let’s cut right to the bottom line: Sen Sakana is one of the best kosher restaurants in America, if not the entire world! Yes, I realize this is high praise indeed, considering the proliferation of kosher eating establishments on virtually every continent. Back when I was growing up in “the old country” – the USA – there were precious few kosher restaurants. Even in Florida, that Mecca of Jewish migration, virtually the only option was to dine in one of the kosher hotels. Today, however, Jewish communities worldwide – from Cozumel to Capetown – offer kosher eateries, many of which are run by either ex-pat Israelis or the local Chabad.

To qualify for the title of “best,” a restaurant must have four primary things going for it, ideally simultaneously: Its food and drink must be top-notch, both in quality and presentation; service must be professional and polite; the cuisine must have some unique aspect to it and the ambience must complement the menu and stimulate your anticipation and enjoyment. It also doesn’t hurt to be located in a great part of town that is easily accessible and fun to visit.

Admittedly, many restaurants score on some of the above points, but often do not hit on all cylinders. Some have great taste but the waiters lack tact; others boast beautiful settings but are hard to get to and are so crowded and noisy that you feel lost in the shuffle. Sen Sakana, in the heart of New York City, is extraordinary because it strives for excellence and does everything right, all at the same time.

The minute you walk through the door, you feel pampered. You are greeted cheerfully with a smile and virtual embrace by a host or hostess. A fully-stocked bar adjoins the dining area where you can enjoy a pre-dinner drink, or wait comfortably for the rest of your party to arrive. There is soft lighting, pleasant background music, fascinating pieces of art and beautiful furnishings, all of which combine to create a feeling of elegance, without being pretentious.

The Nikkei cuisine of Sen Sakana is unique; it is a Peruvian-Japanese hybrid that is a story unto itself. Peru is home to the second-largest Japanese population in the world, and so an extraordinary style of cooking developed over time. That style has now been exclusively brought to the kosher world by Sen Sakana. We learned a great deal about the origins of the restaurant from Dining Manager Michael Martucci, who takes pride in personally meeting every diner and sharing his own story. Michael – who has both Italian and Jewish roots, and so is a “foodie” in every sense of the word! – began at Sen Sen Sakana as a bus boy and steadily worked his way up the ladder.

Sen Sakana Chef Mina Newman. (credit: Sen Sakana)
Sen Sakana Chef Mina Newman. (credit: Sen Sakana)

He explained that the restaurant opened in 2017 as a non-kosher establishment. But owner Alan Wortsky, son of a Holocaust survivor, decided that he wanted to create “a bright light of kosher dining.” To prepare for its “new life,” Sen Sakana closed down for several months before reopening in 2020 with a fully glatt kosher, bishul Yisrael (cooking kosher food sometimes requires an action be done by a Jew) menu. Michael laughs when he tells of the 100 trips he made to the mikveh (ritual bath) to immerse the new dishes and speaks with pride about the clientele that includes “every type of kipa and hat” in the Jewish world. “Baruch Hashem (thank God),” he exclaims, “we want everyone to feel at home here.” While the restaurant was in transition, Chef Mina Newman – who is of Peruvian descent and is a graduate of the Culinary School of Brooklyn – traveled to Peru for a full year to perfect recipes and learn the art of Nikkei cooking. She also brought back hard-to-find source ingredients from Chabad of Tokyo, which welcomed her venture. Mina is vivacious, friendly and exuberantly proud of her art; she has appeared on countless television shows, and was a past recipient of the Food Network’s “Chopped” award.

Sen Sakana is located at 28 West 44th Street, just off Times Square. The area – a prime tourist destination – is buzzing with bright lights and nonstop activity day and night. Due to its close proximity to Broadway, the restaurant is a great place for a pre- or post-theater meal. So, before we headed for our show – the Grammy award-winning Hadestown – Susie and I took our grandchildren out for a phenomenal meal.

As we excitedly perused the extensive menu, we munched on charred edamame and Japanese cucumber with crispy quinoa and Aji Lima dressing. I ordered an Argento cocktail, Susie a Sensa Sour, while Ari and Yardena, the young people, sipped Chicha Moradas, a delicious purple corn drink. Our heads started to spin a bit, signaling we were ready to start our meal in earnest.

For starters, I chose the crispy rice Onigri with a spicy tuna dip in Ponzou sauce, while Susie chose the Sesame-Crusted Tuna Tiradito, garnished with Cara Cara oranges, avocado, corn and tomatoes in a citrus Vinaigrette. Both of these selections are cold; the kids preferred something hot and so Yardena ordered marinated chicken skewers in Teriyaki sauce – you can never go wrong with that – and Ari had the traditional Miso soup, made with Dashi (Japanese soup broth base), mushrooms, carrots and spicy sesame oil. All our choices were outstanding, and at that point, we could already have hit the streets and been satisfied. But we were far from being done. Very far.

Sen Sakana has no less than 12 amazing entrees, not to mention more than 40 varieties of sushi. How could we possibly choose between all these culinary wonders? Fortunately, the staff was there to help us navigate, and I think we chose well. I had the Quinoa-Crusted Chicken Breast in Aji Amarillo tartar sauce with purple potato salad. Susie, the consummate carnivore, seriously considered the Peruvian Lomo Saltado stir-fry beef with tomato and onions in a garlic soy sauce but finally ordered the Côte Boeuf Tomahawk steak. Aged for 32 days in a dry aging room, the steak is finished with a signature blend of salts from Peru and Japan. It was, shall we say, shamayim al ha-aretz, a bit of Heaven on Earth – if you like that kind of thing.

And the teenagers? Well, they love sushi, yet still had real difficulty narrowing down the choices. In the end, Yardena chose – I might have guessed this, because it’s one of her favorite movies – Snow White: Kanikama, avocado, watercress, topped with torched White Fish, scallion, Japanese sweet sauce and honey (vegan) “cream cheese.” Ari wasn’t all that far off; he took the Everything But The Bagel (seeds mix) sushi: cucumber, Oshiko and Shiso, topped with smoked salmon, scallion, honey vegan “cream cheese” and Everything spice. The kids weren’t all that anxious to let me try a bite of their meal, but I pulled rank and I can tell you, the fish was incredibly fresh and tasty.

The food was devoured, the belts were loosened but the management would not let us leave without a sampling of their spectacular desserts, each one a creation unto itself. If chocolate is your thing – and it is definitely our thing – you’ll be mesmerized as we were. The Chocolate Lava cake flows with a cascade of cocoa; the Oreo tart is topped by vanilla ice cream in a strawberry sauce, and the Hazelnut Tiramisu has just a touch of alcohol. All are unforgettable. But we could not leave without sampling Ari’s favorite, Churros con Chocolate, cinnamon-spiced Mexican Churros with a frothy hot chocolate made with almond milk.

This was an experience that almost goes beyond words; it transports your taste buds to unimagined places and pleasures. It can be pricy, to be sure – expect to spend $50-75 for dinner and drinks – but there is also a less expensive and very full lunch menu. The restaurant holds 200 people and includes a separate party room that has become quite popular for birthdays, anniversaries and post-wedding Sheva Brachot (celebratory seven blessings meal).

The Big Apple has Broadway, the Empire State building, the Edge, the Statue of Liberty, Central Park, Little Island, the High Line, the Met and 100 other great places to visit. I strongly suggest adding Sen Sakana to that distinguished list.

(Rabbi Stewart Weiss is the director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana)