Sign up for our Newsletter

Now at the helm of the restaurant their father co-founded, brothers Jesse (left) and Tora Matsuoka are keeping the Japanese culture of high-standard hospitality alive and well at Sen. (Photo credit: David Benthal)

Photography by David Benthal

The Japanese word “sen” is, like many words in that beautiful language, something that isn’t easily defined in one tidy, tight phrase or idea. At its simplest, it can mean one thousand; in other context, it can be a battle or a competition. According to the teachings of the ancient martial artist Ryukyu Kobujutsu, “it’s often considered to be a comprehensive yet subtle thoughtfulness, but in its more extreme use, it is to know and deal with people, often without them realizing.” 

When it comes to Sag Harbor’s Sen, it’s in this deeper nuance that you find the inspiration for its name: an unspoken, read-between-the-lines mindset aimed at anticipating what others may want—which is exactly what the Matsuoka family has been doing for decades as a very tangible representation of this mentality. 

You’re granted access to their special kind of hospitality within a small, unassuming restaurant situated inside a 120-year-old building on Main Street in Sag Harbor. The Hamptons institution is  now in its thirtieth year and has undergone at least two major renovations. It has evolved from what it was—a tiny, corridor-style hole in the wall that could accommodate a mere dozen or so people—to what it is now, a nearly triple-the-size dining area that can hold just shy of a hundred seats, including the classic sushi bar sitting in the center and a full-service bar toward the back of the building. Open every day year-round, it continuously offers unwaveringly ambitious culinary and beverage programs as well as special chef dinners, wine and sake pairings, collaborative community events and an ever-growing catering business. But whatever the reason you may cross Sen’s threshold, the Matsuokas will likely know what you want before you do—or will keep working to figure it out before you leave. 

Tip-top, Top-tier 

Since 1994 Sen has provided East Enders with innovative, high-end yet approachable sushi and Japanese fare. Immediately beloved for its unique (and at the time of its launch, extremely difficult to procure) food and drink offerings, Sen has evolved over three decades into a mecca for consistently well-curated culinary experiences.

The original Sen was founded by restaurateur Jeff Resnick and the late Kazutomo “Tora San” Matsuoka, a Japanese-born professional sumo wrestler turned chef and sushi master who passed away in December 2023. Presently, it’s owned and operated by Matsuoka’s sons, Toranosuke “Tora” and Ryunosuke “Jesse” Matsuoka, both Sag Harbor residents and veteran restaurateurs in their own right.

As co-owners of about half a dozen other South Fork restaurants—including K Pasa, Kumiso, Kizzy T’s, Manna and the soon-to-open Smokey Buns—the innovative brothers helm Tip Top Hospitality group, which has been instrumental in creating concept restaurants across the Hamptons, providing residents and visitors with interesting, affordable and—maybe most important—open-year-round dining options. 

Over the years they have continuously honored the tradition of providing a top-tier level of excellence and reverence in both hospitality and high-quality products, which their father initially instilled in them. Although they are heavily invested in the South Fork restaurant scene, it’s Sen that drives them—it’s where it all began for both of them and it’s because of Sen that they have the confidence, tools and “sen” to know what they’re doing. 

Doing the Basics Better

For nearly 25 years now, elder brother Tora has been a fixture at  the Japanese mainstay, starting out at Sen in its earliest first years at the ripe age of 13. 

“I got a phone call from my dad when I was moving from Japan to Hawaii for school,” he recalls. “We had a very professional relationship—he called me son, I called him father and we bowed—you know, very Japanese. He told me that in America kids have off in the summertime, but that I had not earned that and explained to me ‘Your mother has a plane ticket and you will be coming to work here before you start school.’ ”

So, that’s exactly what he did, traveling alone by plane from Tokyo to Manhattan, then taking a yellow cab from JFK out to Sag Harbor. 

“I had never been [to Sag Harbor] before,” he says. “I remember getting out of the cab at the back of Sen and seeing my dad standing at the back door near where the dishwasher station was. He introduced me to the dishwasher and said how much of an honor it was to work in that position, but sternly told me I had not yet earned that and immediately pointed to the basement, where I would work until I earned the honor of being a dishwasher.” 

That summer, Tora spent his days scrubbing the basement floor, cleaning out dumpsters and emptying trash bins for the better part of 12 hours on most days—“and I loved it,” he says emphatically. During his teens, he would return to work at Sen every summer, earning a spot as a dishwasher, eventually becoming a line cook and then ultimately learning how to roll sushi. “It was challenging because I didn’t know what I was doing” he says, “but the fortunate part was my dad had ensured I worked in every position in that restaurant.” 

Because of this, Tora says, he learned quite early on that the restaurant business was a complex organism of individual pockets of function. “This allowed me to better understand how all those functions worked and, ultimately, how to improve them.” 

Between 1997 and 1998, as Tora was entering his senior year of high school, Resnick and Tora Sr. weren’t working well together and were seeking legal counsel on how to break up the business and sell the remaining assets. Serving as his father’s translator during these meetings, it was then that Tora saw a great opportunity.

“I thought to myself, ‘You know, this is a good business,’ ” he says. “The problem was the people involved in it, not the company itself.” He made the decision to skip college and swiftly returned to Sag Harbor immediately after graduating from high school in Hawaii to take on a full-time role at Sen. “Three years later, I bought my dad out and became partners with Jeff,” he says.

During this time sushi was a rarer commodity than it is now, but as more and more people became interested in the cuisine and Japanese fare in general, it was clear Sen was one of the few entities on the East End able to accommodate the culinary needs of the public. A couple of years after buying out his dad, Tora and Resnick renovated Sen, creating the much larger footprint similar to what it is today.

“We were really fortunate,” he says. “We were in a great town, we continued to grow, we were able to commit to being open seven days a week, year-round, which not many people were doing, and because of that we were able to build our guest base, really, one guest at a time.”

Noting that the restaurant business is becoming more and more difficult—and not only because of rising expenses, whether it be insurance, staffing or soy sauce—Tora says, “Everybody is trying to squeeze a little bit more, but you can’t pass these costs along to the guest.”

“We live in a hyper seasonal market, where we make [the bulk of the] money for 100 days out of the year, but we have to survive 365 days a year, so when your margins shrink it just becomes much more difficult, so the focus is really trying to do the basics better. That’s our motto, internally. It’s about treating guests well, providing genuine hospitality. It’s inevitable something is going to go wrong, it always does. But  it’s about how we handle these things that separates us. There’s no magic, there’s no magic sauce, there’s no creative solution that no one’s ever thought of. It’s really about focusing on doing the basics better and loving our guests.”

After another renovation between 2017 and 2018, the Matsuokas added a full bar toward the back, started serving lunch and began focusing heavily on take-out and catered events, with the intent to bring the Sen experience in a more intimate format to people’s homes, or their yachts or their planes. 

“As long as we keep the focus on the basics, all the programs and initiatives and collaborations that we do is more than anything an attempt to hug the community,” he says. 

A Matsuoka-made Matsuri 

For younger brother Jesse, enthusiasm for the restaurant industry wasn’t necessarily born from his initial experiences with his father, but actually from his mother, Lynn, an American artist who spent years studying, reporting and capturing the spirit of professional sumo wrestlers in Japan through countless paintings and mixed media pieces. In the mid-1980s, just  before Jesse was born, she purchased a house in Bridgehampton, a move that initially relocated Tora Sr. from his decade-long restaurant career in Manhattan (after he retired from sumo) to the Hamptons. When their parents divorced, the brothers ended up heading to Japan to live with their mother.

“My mother would take me out to business meetings with her clients in restaurants, and it would be a bunch of sumo wrestlers, a handful of kabuki actors and then me,” Jesse recalls. “So, what does the sole kid in the restaurant end up doing in this situation? Walking around.” As a child, he frequently found himself in the kitchens of Tokyo eateries, where chefs would allow the cute little kid to try out his culinary chops. 

Jesse reconnected with his father at age 10 and  came to work at Sen when he was a pre-teen, working as a dishwasher and prep cook.  “I tried out sumo when I was 11, and I work in restaurants now, so clearly, you can see how that worked out,” he says.

Although Jesse technically became a partner about 10 years after his brother, he’s been the go-to, hands-on one to help bring Sen into its current era. With the distinction of being the lone sake sommelier on Long Island and founder of the American Sake Association, he’s helped spearhead numerous sake dinners, tastings and collaborations as well as tons of events, both local and well beyond the East End. 

His extensive knowledge of Japanese cuisine and culture has helped bring Sen into the forefront of culinary excellence it’s synonymous with today, armed with a menu of about 100 items, a staff of nearly 75 during the peak season and a flourishing take-out and catering department that’s grown exponentially over the past decade. With a constant eye toward the future, he says, “I want to be able to express what we’ve accomplished here over the last 30 years in a way that shows an honorable example, and to me that means, ‘Let’s express Japan, let’s express Japanese culture.’ ”

Brothers Jesse and Tora Matsuoka and the next generation of Sen. (Photo credit: David Benthal)

Jesse’s hands-on outreach and practically innate sense of what his community is looking for is only recharged by his frequent trips to Japan both for research and for pleasure. He regularly meets vendors—putting a face to the products Sen is using—ultimately allowing him to take their stories back to the customer base he and his brother have grown in Sag Harbor. “When you explain the story of this producer of the product you’re about to bite into there’s something about it that makes that bite taste that much better,” he says.

For Sen’s  official 30th anniversary celebration last month, Jesse  spearheaded the restaurant’s first annual matsuri (Japanese for festival), a traditional summer event that’s an immersive experience of Japanese culture and cuisine. Activities included Japanese games, taiko drum performances, calligraphy, origami, face painting plus a slew of tastings and food-centric showcases. “That’s what we’re trying to cultivate here,” he says. “This event is an ‘arigato’ to this community for being our home for the past three decades.” 

For him, it’s about food, beverage, culture and art, with a strong sense of family at the core.

“We’re a second-generation, family-owned operation,” he says, noting that Resnick retired two years ago. “With respect to the founders for giving us such a tremendous platform to launch from, this is the 30-year stepping stone to the next 30 years, if not 100. Truly, it’s a beautiful thing.”