Some restaurants are blessed with a good location, others cursed by it. The latter is the case with SenYa, a six-month-old Japanese sushi bar on the East Village's wildly popular First Avenue, with such neighbors as Korean sensation Oiji, Basque tapas bar Huertas, and Alex Stupak's Empellon Cocina. So how can such an ideal site be blighted? SenYa lies directly across the avenue from Sushi Dojo, which caused a furor two years ago when it opened, not only due to its piscine innovations and uni obsessions, but also as a result of its chief itamae's ethnicity. Can a Floridian of French-Moroccan descent make great sushi? Decidedly so.
Having Dojo across the street has plundered SenYa's potential customer base. Which is a shame, since the sushi that flies from its knives is every bit as good, and just as creative. It's also generally less expensive (though both offer an omakase of 10 pieces for $45), with a wider variety of options, both at the sushi bar and in the kitchen. Mostly eschewing clams and other shellfish, SenYa's omakase favors fin fish, which are often local and off the beaten path as far as the usual sushi selection goes. Served on two sequential pieces of slate, the sushi comes out pre-seasoned, so that no soy sauce, wasabi, or even ginger are really required. Sometimes the flavoring consists of a little hillock of finely chopped scallions; sometimes a slice of green chile, a drop of ginger-carrot emulsion, or a sliver of black truffle.
Here are some highlights from three recent omakases: red snapper with clinging skin that has been lightly seared to provide crunch; a perfect orange cloud of California sea urchin, crowded inside a curl of nori by salmon roe, adding pop to squish; a very plain plank of Canadian blue fin tuna, smoother on the tongue than the usual red tuna and also sustainably fished; a slab of unctuous foie gras like a glistening tombstone; firm amberjack with a schmear of tart and salty plum sauce; and a live scallop still practically squirming topped with shreds of satsuma skin, imparting a citric pungency.
The dining room is deep and narrow and dark, with the seatless sushi bar planted on a side wall three-quarters of the way back. Adornments are minimal, but include folksy woven baskets, spiky uni shells stuck on gray walls, and triangular arrays of tiny brass temple bells that seem on the verge of ringing. "This is decorated as sparsely as a sushi bar in Tokyo, only it's bigger," said a friend who is an old Japan hand one evening. Two chefs pose behind the sushi bar, but omakases are not the only things to expect from them. (Be forewarned that service can be a bit fumbling at SenYa.)
Another highlight of the menu is the pressed sushi called hako ("box") sushi, a variety made popular in Osaka that predates Tokyo-style nigiri sushi, and was once regarded as a form of preservation. The vinegared rice is pushed into a box called a battera (originally a Dutch word), with the fish carefully planked on top like wooden floorboards. Sometimes gelatin is added to help the sushi set. The lid is put in place and pressure applied. After it achieves firmness, the solid block is removed and cut like a cake into bite-size pieces. This sushi doesn't strive for the lightness of nigiri sushi, but flaunts its rich density. Of the three types offered, best is orange sea trout ($18), with skin that glistens a rainbow of colors. Covered with a haystack of fried burdock shreds, the conger eel (anago) is also worth trying.
There's a 13-piece plus maki roll sushi-sashimi assortment for $32, which is a spectacular deal, and also oddball sushi combinations and daily sushi specials, such as an opportunity to order five-piece sets of some of the rarer fish at prices ranging from $24 to $32. Some of the fish are imported from Tokyo, such as red-spotted masu salmon and kinmedai — golden eye sea bream. Sushi aficionados will find no lack of peculiarities and seasonal specials. A cold appetizer section offers raw fish prepared as carpaccios and ceviches.
Sushi aficionados will find no lack of peculiarities and seasonal specials.
In America most sushi bars also offer kitchen entrees, probably due to this country's initial fear of raw fish. Usually these apps and mains are of an entirely predictable sort, featuring mundane choices like beef teriyaki, soba in soups, and Japanese-style fried chicken. Once again, SenYa reaches further into its grab bag of regional specialties to come up with some exemplary short dishes served warm. There's a smoked red snapper head ($8) — crunchy skin intact, served with grated daikon and a lemon wedge — that repays lots of thoughtful picking; and rock shrimp tempura ($12) which comes in a thin mustard-mayo glaze, but remains miraculously crunchy and sweet. Skip the sliced filet mignon. Who want to eat steak in a sushi bar?
But one of the best and most generous hot dishes of all is unaju ($22), a black lacquer box filled with rice sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds, with a giant filet of grilled eel in the kabayaki style on top, concealed under shredded nori. Dashi stock and pickles accompany, and the next time I step into SenYa, it's unclear to me whether I can resist it in favor of the restaurant's excellent sushi. All the more reason to bring several friends and enjoy it as an app.
Cost: Dinner for two, including a hot app, cold app, two sushi-sashimi assortments, and two cold beers, plus tax but not tip, $120
Sample dishes: 10-piece sushi omakase, miso black cod, snow crab chawanmushi (egg custard), mackerel pressed sushi
What to drink: Modest alcohol list includes 13 sakes, 3 white wines and 3 reds, plus 5 beers, of which sansho-flavored Kagua Rouge is the most interesting.
Bonus tip: Happy hour (5 p.m. to 7 p.m.) offers $4 Sapporo beers; chirashi is the best entrée for quantity of raw fish at the price ($34).