Japanese Food Tour Inspires a Sag Harbor Menu

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A spread of Japanese delicacies. Jesse Matsuoka photos

By Christine Sampson

From the moment Jesse Matsuoka and his six travel companions left New York for their trip to Japan in January, they scarcely stopped eating and drinking.

Between the surprisingly satisfying airplane food, bento boxes on bullet trains and oishii offerings at restaurants and sake breweries everywhere they went in Japan, the trip was Matsuoka’s deliberate attempt to capture a greater sense of the flavor and authenticity of Japanese cuisine at Sen, the Sag Harbor restaurant he owns in partnership with his brother, Tora Matsuoka, and Jeff Resnick.

“I packed everything into this trip. There is something so interesting and beautiful to do in every town in Japan that you won’t need to leave, but I really wanted to showcase Japan,” Jesse Matsuoka said recently, while swiping through hundreds of photos from the trip on his iPhone. “It was a vacation-slash-business trip, but our business is food and beverage, so we had to go out to eat at all these amazing places and we had to drink at all these fantastic bars. I wouldn’t say we were three sheets to the wind, but we were pretty happy.”

Brandon Kruel of Sen looking out over Tokyo at a restaurant at the top of the Sky Tree, which is the tallest building in Japan.

Matsuoka’s group made stops at a cat café and an owl café — where you can dine or simply hang out alongside those creatures — and a kawaii café, robot restaurant and the Sky Tree restaurant, which is housed in the tallest building in Japan. But the restaurateur has no plans to apply to Sag Harbor Village for those types of expanded uses at his Main Street restaurant anytime soon.

Instead, he and Sen’s executive chef, Luke Ferrara, who also went on the trip, brought back inspiration for new dishes, technical and cultural knowledge and an overall approach to Japanese cooking that they say will benefit both themselves and guests at their restaurant.

“My trip to Japan has affected my life both professionally and spiritually,” Ferrara said. “The harmonious blend that I learned from the culture not only increased my craft as a chef but also brought balance to my life. Only food and culture working together can do that.”

For instance, before their more tourism-centered outings each day, Ferrara would head out in the mornings to the local food markets to get a sense of how they operated. In some of the smaller towns they visited, he would cook alongside the chefs in kitchens of restaurants belonging to friends of Matsuoka.

“Each vendor is focused on one product, and does it perfectly,” Ferrara said. “Flavors, platters, production — all are focused and not overdone.”

Of course, it wasn’t Matsuoka’s first trip to Japan. He lived there for about 10 years with his sumo wrestler father, Tora, and artist mother, Lynn, before returning to the United States in 1997, and has been back numerous times. But, he said, “living it through the eyes of a first-timer was so nostalgic and beautiful.”

Wherever the group went to eat — which they did about ten times a day, between snacking here and there or sitting down for a full meal — they inquired about each restaurant’s osusume, or local highlight, or its jizake, local sake. It’s considered a gesture of respect to the chef or owner for guests to try their specialties.

“The usual thing is to say, ‘Osusume wa nan desu ka’ — what is the highlight of this place?” Matsuoka said. “They’d give us this story of the local vibe, being so proud to showcase the history and highlight their local products. With jizake, they’re so proud of it they put it up on a pedestal, literally and figuratively.”

Sen chef Luke Ferrara, left, is served dinner by a geisha, or traditional female Japanese entertainer, at Hyotei, a well-known restaurant rated with three Michelin starts in the town of Nakago-ku in the city of Kyoto.

That inspired him and Ferrara to look for ways to incorporate local foods into their offerings at Sen, Matsuoka said. Look for menu items like a vegan Daikon roll, which consists of citrus wedges, avocado and fresh South Fork micro greens, and a pan-seared bronzini over rice with uzi nage and sautéed broccoli rabe, garnished with local micro greens and “sweet drop” peppers.

“Here in the Hamptons we have such fantastic bounty and such dedicated, business-minded farmers that we’d be doing a disservice by not serving their products,” he said. “We’ll do this through specials. That’s where we can be a little more expressive than our traditional Japanese menu.”

Also new on the menu: A classic yakisoba dish with carmelized tonkatsu sauce, red pickle, spicy mustard and smoked fish flakes, directly inspired by the trip.

Ferrara was also particularly inspired by a stop at a restaurant called Asagao in the town of Myoko that is known for its sumiyaki grill — so much so that he built his own special grill for use in cooking yakitori at Sen.

“I walked away with a piece of my soul fulfilled,” he said.

In Tokyo, the group stopped for dinner one night at a popular restaurant, Zauou, which featured a large boat in the middle surrounded by a body of water resembling a pond. Sitting around that pond, guests grab fishing poles and attempt to catch their dinner from the pond, which is teeming with many types of farm-raised fish. Prohibited from throwing anything back in, guests pay by the pound and can request the chef prepare their catch steamed, fried, sautéed, stewed or as sushi or sashimi.

It stood in stark contrast to the robot restaurant, a tourist trap featuring a cabaret with performers dressed like robots and a rave-like vibe. “It’s that stupid thing you do on your trip where you know they’ll just take your money and it will be so much ridiculousness,” Matsuoka said, while crunching on raw asparagus handed out by a farmer friend making her way down Main Street with a basket filled with the spring vegetable.

And contrast that still to Hyotei, a traditional geisha restaurant in the city of Kyoto rated with three Michelin stars. Their meal was a traditional one featuring what Matsuoka described as “the bounty of the local land” — foods like fluke sashimi, chicken soup and pickled vegetables that were grown locally over the summer then preserved for use in the winter. “They were simple, seasonal ingredients,” Matsuoka said. “Very, very expensive, but quite an experience. Every single detail is taken care of from the time you arrive to the time you leave.”

Then there were the sake breweries.

“We only did two, because I didn’t want to bore the team with my sake obsession,” Matsuoka said.

The Toji, or brewmaster, at the Hakkaisan sake brewery offered a tour of the kojimura, the room where rice is fermented to make the traditional rice wine.

At Hakkaisan Brewery in the city of Niigata, the group was joined by Matsuoka’s own “sake sensei,” Tim Sullivan. At Hakkaisan — which even owned a painting by Pablo Picasso — dinner was accompanied by so many variations of sake servings that no one touched their water, Matsuoka said.

“Cold, warm, room temperature. We tasted them in different glasses, like a champagne flute and a pint glass,” he said. “To say the least we were really happy by the end of dinner. They had said, ‘Our goal tonight is to intoxicate you. We want you to be happy and merry from our products.’”

At Ippongi, which is known for its experiments with sake aged at the lowest possible temperatures for the longest possible times, and whose president even has a refrigerated cave to store aging sake bottles, Matsuoka said the group was the first to taste-test one of the brewery’s brand-new aged sake varieties. They also tasted a seasonal sake, Denshin Haru, right out of the press. A smooth, floral sake with a velvety, rich, deep umami, Matsuoka ordered it to serve this summer at Sen.

While in Tokyo, the group dined at the New York Grill at the Grand Hyatt Hotel — where the only rosé wine on the menu happened to be from Wölffer Estate. Matsuoka snapped a photo of the bottle. “I sent the picture to Roman [Roth] and said, ‘You’re doing a great job,’” he said.

Matsuoka said Brandon Kruel, a member of Sen’s service staff, also benefited from the trip.

“He has so many details on how things are made and how to enjoy things,” Matsuoka said. “That inspires our guests. The product tastes that much better when they hear the story.

Ramen noodles at 2 a.m. Window-shopping at knife stores “with knives the size of people.” Johnny Walker Blue for $18 a glass, as opposed to the $36 or $45 one would pay in the United States. Stops at shrines, skiing in seven feet of snow and a visit to the Harajuku neighborhood of Tokyo, known for its residents’ particularly unique fashion style and made famous by a controversial Gwen Stefani song in 2004. Matsuoka was right — he packed so much into the trip. The trip was over nearly as fast as the shinkansen trains that carry passengers across Japan at about 200 miles per hour.

“The main goal was to inspire, to teach,” he said. “There’s no better way than to dive right in to the cuisine and the culture, from the grungy street food vendor to the three-Michelin-star restaurant and everything in between. It was definitely mission accomplished.”

Japanese terminology

bento: A traditional single-portion meal box containing rice, pickled or cooked vegetables, and fish or meat

geisha: Traditional female Japanese entertainers, often skilled in classical arts such as music, poetry and dance

jizake: Local sake

kawaii: Cute

oishii: Delicious

osusume: Local highlight or recommendation

sake: Traditional rice wine

sensei: An honorific term meaning teacher or mentor

shinkansen: High-speed bullet train

sumiyaki: Charcoal grill

umami: A category of food attribute corresponding to savory and bold flavors, beyond the typical attributes of sweet, sour, salty and bitter tastes

yakitori: Skewered chicken

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