At Sen Sakana, the classic Peruvian recipe of boiled yellow potatoes smothered in yellower creamy pepper sauce, called papa a la huancaina, is reconfigured as a parade of cheesy croquettes ($12) made with cassava. The crispy golf ball–sized snacks have a brittler crunch and denser bite than tater tots, and the pool they wade in zings with the floral bite of Peruvian aji amarillo chiles. A mound of citrus-spritzed grated daikon radish sits at the other end of the plate, a clever counterpoint to the richness that lays bare this capacious midtown spot’s intentions.
Sen Sakana is an ode to Peru’s Nikkei cuisine, a protean blend of ingredients and techniques courtesy of the country’s Japanese diaspora. This ongoing culinary dialogue started more than 125 years ago with the arrival of indentured Japanese laborers, and has only grown louder in recent years as chefs of Japanese Peruvian descent like Mitsuharu Tsumura — whose Maido, in Lima, ranks among South America’s finest restaurants — gain global recognition. Beyond Peru’s borders, Japanese-born sushi kingpin Nobu Matsuhisa — who worked in Lima before making his way to Los Angeles — got North Americans hooked on the idea decades ago, while the famed fine-dining brothers Adrià (that would be El Bulli’s Ferran and Albert) operate a Nikkei restaurant in Barcelona. Others have cropped up stateside in cities like Boston, Chicago, and Miami.
Occupying a 200-seat, hangar-like expanse across from the Harvard Club on West 44th Street, Sen Sakana is equipped to satiate the entertainment-seeking hordes of Times Square and the Theater District. For a dose of Manhattan glitz, the retro-futuristic dining room is punctuated by colorful backlighting that illuminates the walls and glows from beneath the counters. Three chefs are in charge. Two of them — Mina Newman, a New Yorker with Peruvian roots, and Osaka-born Taku Nagai — oversee the kitchen, while South Korean expat Sang Hyun Lee handles sushi. Together, they’ve come up with a six-page menu that fits the ambitions of the space.
Standouts from the nearly two dozen appetizers include gingery chicken soup ($12) with meatballs made from black-feathered Silkie birds, and thickly braided empanadas ($8) stuffed with earthy mushrooms roasted in Pisco, the popular Peruvian grape brandy. And although they’re a little goofy looking, consider an order of the open-faced spring rolls called harumaki ($23), which look like pescatarian marrow bones, their brittle shells filled with spicy tuna and yuzu-scented scallops. Lee’s craftsmanship takes sushi to similar creative heights, with his best efforts — slabs of tuna topped with green apple, and lobes of sea urchin with purple potatoes — found under the section labeled “Nikkei nigiri.” Rolls tend toward the zany, but on a recent night my table couldn’t stop eating one topped with freshwater eel and wedges of egg omelet brushed with aji panca–spiked sweet soy.
Peruvian standbys like ceviche and tiradito, sashimi’s saucier cousin, are given new life here. In particular, a tiradito of bigeye tuna ($22) pooled with cool and tongue-lashing jalapeño-cilantro puree, and the wholly impressive Nikkei ceviche ($20), wherein seared salmon is walloped with yuzu leche de tigre marinade and a giddy mess of pickled onions, minty shiso, and Peruvian corn kernels boiled soft and fried into corn nuts. Then there are the anticucho skewers cooked over Japanese binchotan charcoal, which are found on the menu under the Japanese heading “kushiyaki” and should not be missed. They range from traditional Peruvian grilled beef heart ($8) to combinations like pork belly wrapped around shiso leaf and peppers stuffed with melting South American cheese, the most sophisticated jalapeño poppers you’ve ever tasted. And given that Peru is famous for its rotisserie chicken, it’s perhaps no surprise that poultry stars in some of Sen Sakana’s most compelling entrées. One deftly coats tender cutlets in a crunchy fried quinoa crust, while the other nestles grilled thighs and eggs with runny yolks in pungent cilantro rice.
Desserts ($12) keep matters fairly simple. “Water cake,” the Japanese gelatin dessert that went viral a few years ago, benefits from an infusion of the Peruvian purple corn beverage chicha morada. Though if you only have room for a single treat, a likely outcome given the portions here, make it the squash and sweet potato waffle inspired by the old-fashioned Peruvian vegetable doughnuts called picarones. Drizzled in spiced molasses and plunked next to a scoop of banana ice cream flavored with nutty Japanese roasted soybean flower, it puts Nikkei cuisine in the sweetest of contexts.
28 West 44th Street
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 12, 2018