Jesse Matsuoka loves a good smorgasbord. And so do his customers at Sen, apparently.
Every day, the co-owner of the Japanese restaurant does a daily lottery drawing for its tasting menu, which began on October 15 and will continue Sundays to Thursdays, through April, at the popular Sag Harbor eatery.
The telephone conversation that follows usually goes a little something like this:
“Hey, you just won the Sen tasting menu lottery,” Matsuoka announces.
Screaming ensues. “Oh my god! Honey, honey! I won the lottery!” the winner exclaims.
“No, wait, it’s the Sen tasting menu,” Matsuoka says hurriedly. “You’re not winning $300 million, you’re winning a tasting menu.”
“No, no, we understand. We won the tasting menu. We never win anything!”
Matsuoka never imagined the fishbowl lottery would bring so much joy during the off-season — and especially to himself, he said. The unveiling of the seven-course tasting menu itself, though, is always a close second.
“You get to taste through multiple different flavor profiles, different textures and we have a menu of 100 items, so to do just a three-course prix fixe is kind of boring,” he said. “When you have a selection of 100 items, might as well get as many as you can without eating seven full dishes. I mean, I can eat seven dishes, but I’m the son of a sumo wrestler, so that is not fair to others.”
For a $28 base cost, the tasting menu is a mix-and-match bento box at its finest, with one choice from seven categories each — soup, salad, seasonal vegetables, sushi/sashimi, kitchen selection, rice and dessert — and the option to double up on one and skip another.
“The combination is almost endless, which is why we do so well in the off-season,” Matsuoka said. “You can come into Sen and have the tasting menu a different way each day, and not eat the same thing. It’s really about the options of how you’re feeling for the day, what the temperature is outside.
“If it’s a cold gloomy day, we definitely sell a lot more things like ramen and noodles and hot dishes like that,” he continued. “You might have an Indian Summer day, and you lean a little bit more toward the colder dishes, the salad and the sushi. That’s what it really comes down to: options. And at Sen, we try to give you as many options as possible, to be able to create your own guided meal.”
Fan favorites include the Rock Shrimp Tempura, Panko Tofu, Spicy Tuna Roll and Kakuni, a braised pork belly dish that is only available on the tasting menu. For dessert, it’s all about the Mochidoki ice cream — a fresh take on a Japanese-inspired delicacy, with premium ice cream wrapped in a thin layer of chewy mochi rice cake. The best-selling flavor is the “de-licious” salted caramel, Matsuoka said, but people are now raving about the new pumpkin cookie.
“We have so many compliments on the tasting menu itself that people kind of freak out when we change things,” he said. “So we try and keep it as consistent as possible, and then over specials and over different chef dinners, we will test out the market by offering different specials and then the market will tell us what else they’re looking for.”
For the first chef’s dinner of the year, it’s all about Matsuoka, he said with a laugh. After all, it is his birthday feast. On Thursday, October 24, the 34-year-old will eat the dinner of his dreams, he said — and for $120 a seat, anyone is welcome to join him for the eight-course prix fixe.
“You are sure to be wowed, and fully and totally in seventh heaven,” he said. “And celebrating my birthday with me! We’re really showing off with this one. There’s a lot of really, really great items.”
The menu starts off with Tempura Oyster, served with Uni Mousse, Red Masago and Caviar, followed by the Sen Taco — filled with Spicy Tuna, Crunchy Onions, Spicy mayo and Eel Sauce on a Tempura Nori Shell.
For Matsuoka, highlights include the Wagyu Tartare, made with Japanese premium beef and a fortified soy sauce using bonito flakes, kelp seaweed and smoked applewood chips — “It’s melt-in-your-mouth goodness,” he said — and the Peking Duck Ramen.
“That is something we don’t usually do, so that’s something really, really fun to look forward to,” he said. “We’ve done a slow-braised duck broth, and with the duck confit that we have that goes on top. It’s just duck on duck on duck, and it’s ah-mazing. And people can’t go wrong with ramen. You add duck, which is a huge seller, and then you make it into a ramen and people just go crazy.”
The meal is rounded out with Togarashi Crusted King salmon, a King Crab California roll and Peppercorn Crusted Steak with Tobanjan Bearnaise, asparagus and bok choy, and finished on a light note with Apple Caramel and Pumpkin Spice Maple Walnut Dango — a traditional Japanese dessert from Matsuoka’s childhood.
“And to make things even more exciting, we’re pairing everything — all eight courses — with sake,” he said. “It’s gonna be one hell of a time.”
Sen is located at 23 Main Street in Sag Harbor. For more information, contact the restaurant by calling 631-725-1774 or visiting senrestaurant.com.