The Sen Secret

A rare faithfulness to authenticity makes this Japanese restaurant the city’s best

Photo by Anthony MairThe kushiyaki with shrimp.

Photo by Anthony MairSukiyaki, a Japanese one-pot supper.

“Taste this,” says sushi master Hiro Nakano, handing me a thimble-size glass filled with dashi, the smoky broth used to flavor virtually every dish in an authentic Japanese restaurant. As soon as I do, I know good things are in store.

The dashi is somewhat austere, and Chef Nakano’s is based on two types of seaweed and the smoky bonito flakes known as katsuobushi in Japanese. It looks like a watery scotch. And without it, the cuisine at Sen of Japan would not be nearly as outstanding.

Put simply, this is the city’s best sushi restaurant, because the Tokyo-trained chef accords his rice and fish the proper respect and care. The way fish is chosen, cut and stored is as critical to the success of sushi restaurants, as is the broth. And most of the city’s sushi bars can’t cut the wasabi in either category.

But just what is sushi? Most people think fish, when the answer is really rice. Sushi is short-grain Japanese rice, cooked with vinegar, then topped, stuffed or wrapped with fish, vegetables or even fruit. It is emphatically not raw fish, which is sashimi.

In Japan, where nigiri—the fish-topped form of sushi we favor—is a luxury item, much of the sushi uses no fish but rather toppings and stuffings of egg, tofu, seaweed or vegetables.

I like to start a meal here with Nakano-san’s superb salmon skin salad, with its crunchy shards of salmon contrasting perfectly with mixed greens and perfectly cut carrot, laced with sesame oil and yuzu—a Japanese citrus-based dressing.

Then I break protocol by choosing a hand roll; the selections range from spicy tuna to nigiri topped with mackerel, ocean trout or kanpachi, the delicately fleshed amberjack. I ask for, and receive, a dollop of fresh wasabi—not the pasty artificial Play-Doh most places serve—and was duly impressed by the difference in flavor and intensity.

For a splurge, Nakano offers a multicourse omakase (chef’s choice) for either $55 or $85 per person. What you get varies daily, depending on what is either fresh or seasonal. But be aware that Japanese don’t usually eat sushi as a main course, or to begin a dinner. In fact, miso soup, based on a paste of fermented soybeans, comes near the end of a multicourse dinner, just after the sushi. Nakano does three versions, my favorite being a red (or akadashi) miso.

Cooked dishes are sublime and will surely be part of the dinner. Two techniques used in mid-courses are tempura and kushiyaki, which is meat or fish broiled on skewers. The chef’s tempura is light, crisp and ethereal, especially whitefish tempura or one made with scallops.

Kushiyaki, however, seem pricey at $6.75 for scallops and $4 for shrimp, at one skewer per order. But the chicken is a good deal at $2.25, and the squid, for $3.25, isn’t far behind.

Do try tsukune, a trio of soy-glazed quail meatballs on wooden skewers, or shishito, bright-green Japanese peppers with a wicked bite, served on butcher paper, glistening with oil. My wife loves her hot sake with this food, but I always go for a cold one, such as Kirin Ichiban.

Cleanse your palate with fruit or tea at the finish, or you might just be tasting that dashi all the way home. There are worse fates.

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