Peru is making a move on Manhattan again. Get ready for huancaína and huacatay, tiradito and tacu-tacu. Brush up on the rocoto chile and its cousins, pinpoint-bright aji amarillo and aji panca, warmer and fruitier. Renew your friendship with causas and chaufas and leche de tigre, the milk of the tiger, without which there can be no ceviche.
All these things and more are draped all over the menu at Sen Sakana, which is devoted to the food created by Japanese immigrants and their descendants in Peru. Non-Peruvians who know this hybrid cuisine at all probably first ran into it at a restaurant run by Nobu Matsuhisa, the Japanese-trained sushi chef who worked in Lima for a few years in the 1970s and helped himself to local ingredients and ideas. If you have ever eaten the raw fish with yuzu and a dot of rocoto chile paste that is Nobu’s interpretation of tiradito, or its grilled skewers with spicy anticucho sauce, you have tasted Peru’s Nikkei cuisine.
At Sen Sakana, you can have more than a taste. The restaurant opened over the summer on the block of West 44th Street that is home to the Algonquin, the Royalton and the Iroquois hotels. There is room for almost 200 people in the square bar up front, the main dining room with rows of light wood tables and chairs in neutral upholstery, and a raised mezzanine that manages to make room for both extra tables and an entire sushi bar.
To make this vastness look less like a warehouse and more like a Japanese restaurant, the designer made liberal use of slats. Some run up and down and the rest side to side, and behind some of those slats are lights that flood the walls with red or blue.
It is the kind of sleek, sprawling, good-looking restaurant that you used to see all over Midtown, and then saw less often as the dining scene’s center of gravity moved to smaller, handmade spaces downtown and across the East River, and are now starting to see again at, say, Empellón and the Grill.
Sprawling and sleek is not the current fashion, but it has also become apparent that small and handmade does not always mean high quality. Like any style, it can be faked. And one advantage of Sen Sakana’s sprawl is that if you are working in Midtown when the quitting-time whistle blows, or are going there for a show, your chances of getting in are better than average.
At six pages, the menu is a bit of a sprawl itself. Its many categories can, however, be distilled down to just four: appetizers, main courses, skewers and sushi.
In the first group is a cold cucumber of unusual interest. Covered in crunchy quinoa, toasted sesame seeds and flakes of kelp intensified with soy, it sits on a yellow streak of sauce made from aji amarillo. The menu calls the cucumber yamitsuki, the Japanese word for addictive. I wouldn’t go that far, but it does push a lot of good buttons at once.
Gyoza, a half-dozen or so bound together by a crisp, shattering crepe-like lid, are filled with shrimp, crab and an exhilaratingly big jolt of fresh ginger. Sea bream tiradito gets a shower of shio kombu and two sauces; the tart yellow one is mango with aji amarillo and white soy; and the spicy green one is cilantro. Another tiradito sets raw bigeye tuna, daikon sprouts and pickled daikon in a lake of cilantro-jalapeño sauce.
I’d order any of these again, which I can’t say about all the appetizers. Root vegetable chips were more oily than crisp. Sen Sakana also has a take on Japanese onigiri in which causa, the Peruvian whipped-potato constructions, are pinched inside sheets of nori. The idea is more interesting than the flavors; the potatoes needed seasoning, and the crab and chopped salmon fillings, advertised as spicy, weren’t very.
With the exception of undercrisped chicken skin, the skewers of meats and vegetables grilled over charcoal on a robata are worth investigating, especially the Japanese sweet potato with a melting slab of aji amarillo-spiked butter, and the pork belly stuffed with queso cremoso, which has the texture of mozzarella that is trying to turn itself into cream cheese.
The short roster of main courses on the menu nearly gets lost. This wouldn’t be a bad thing in the case of the skirt steak over tacu-tacu, a go-to rice-and-beans dish in Peru that becomes a flavorless paste here. But there are better choices, like a pleasantly unorthodox oyakodon, with an egg and chicken thigh over rice cooked with cilantro and pumpkin. And the chicken nanban removes any doubt that quinoa can make an effectively crunchy crust for fried chicken.
Peru and Japan each have one representative in the main kitchen, where two chefs, Mina Newman and Taku Nagai, share power. Ms. Newman is a New Yorker who spent summers as a child in Chiclayo, the city in northwestern Peru where her mother was born. Mr. Nagai, an Osaka native, is a veteran of Japanese restaurants in New York and Asia. The two generally keep up with the number of seats and the size of the menu, although waits between courses sometimes drag.
The dining room staff doesn’t seem as well organized. My servers were cheerful and communicated well with customers, but not necessarily with each other. Three people in a row would stop by to ask the same question, and just clearing the table seemed to take a cast of hundreds.
A third chef, named Sang Hyun Lee, presides over the free-standing sushi bar. His work ranges from simple, classic nigiri and sashimi to psychedelic, 10-ingredient inside-out rolls that might make Jiro Ono cross-eyed.
Sen Sakana’s best sushi is somewhere in between: what Mr. Lee calls Nikkei sashimi and nigiri. Augmented with Peruvian or Japanese flavors, these pieces are only slightly out of bounds, and can be delicious. There’s pleasurable tension in topping raw scallop with a tiny fleck of yuzu-ponzu jelly and commas of shaved lemon peel, or brushing sea bream with a tart, spicy sauce of yuzu and aji amarillo, then dotting it with a tiny bit of salted plum paste. Add six more things and they would all start to collide somewhere over the Pacific.
One dessert is a small waffle made from batter that contains squash and sweet potato, a homage to Peruvian picarones, with a dark molasses syrup. Another is a shallow-pan chocolate tres leches cake, which tasted something like a dense brownie over which somebody poured a glass of cocktail de algarrobina, Peru’s answer to eggnog. It had never occurred to me to soak a brownie in eggnog. “Does this make sense?” I asked, between bites, until it was gone.
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