All the right chops 

Sakura continues to please

Sakura continues to please

Ask many a western chef what their favorite food is after they get off work, and a fair percentage will tell you that it's a big plate of sushi and a couple of beers and maybe a serving or two of sake. It makes sense in a way, after spending a day up to your elbows in butter and cream, roasting in front of a salamander, to seek out something cool and elegant, as far away from your own food as possible, however great your own food may be.

Over the past decade or so, sushi has become the food of choice for those in the know. I am acquainted with many home cooks who refuse to eat out, because they believe they can prepare better food at home than most restaurants at a fraction of the price. One of the few exceptions to this rule that they share in common is Japanese food. It's a type of cuisine that one doesn't generally get to prepare at home, most obviously because the ingredients are almost impossible to acquire, but also because its preparation requires a set of culinary chops that the vast majority of cooks, amateur and professional alike, simply don't aspire to. Sushi chefs are highly-trained individuals whose artistry and know-how can translate a humble slab of fresh fish into a thing of beauty, imbued with an almost unrivalled ability to deliver gastronomic pleasure.

There's a proportional relationship between the delicacy of impeccably fresh fish and the intensity of the sensations that come with eating it. Good sushi is rather like good champagne: the more ethereal the texture and flavor, the finer the bubbles, the more sublime the experience. Not that sushi has bubbles, of course, but you get the general picture. For a city the size of Indianapolis, we are certainly spoilt for choice when it comes to Japanese fine dining. Ten years ago, there was just one such restaurant: Sakura.

Now there are at least 15 high-quality Japanese restaurants with fully-fledged sushi bars, each offering, at the very least, a solid level of food, presentation and service, in a pretty range of prices. What is particularly notable about local sushi restaurants is their degree of independence, not only from chains, but also from each other. There's a healthy sense of competition, and it's not uncommon to hear lively debates about who uses the best purveyors of fish, where the finest uni comes from or who's likely to take shortcuts in order to save a buck or two. Owners are fiercely protective of their highly-qualified chefs, each of whom has his own prized idiosyncrasies and his own signature dishes. The secret to hunting out the finest sushi depends not only upon who has the best and freshest fish, but also upon which chef has the finest touch, or makes the most perfect rice. Portion sizes are crucial: too small and the restaurant appears stingy and overpriced, too large and it seems clumsy and inelegant, an absolute no-no in sushi world.

Consistency is key, which is probably why Sakura has enjoyed such enormous success over the past decade or so. Recently, it occurred to me that, despite the fact that I have eaten at Sakura at least a dozen times over the past two years, it is the only Japanese restaurant I have not reviewed during that period. Why, I have no idea, except perhaps to say that I've always been afraid to take on a sacred cow, to tackle the grand old lady, as it were. No worries on that count, though, because Sakura, despite being long in the tooth and just a tad threadbare, still delivers the goods with astonishing consistency.

OK, perhaps I have a single reservation, which needs to be addressed first. The service at Sakura can be variable. Usually, my friend, The Fuss, and I try to get the same server (who I shall not name here, but she knows who she is, and she is quite outstanding). This is the only way that I've found to guarantee good service. Without over-belaboring the point, some friends and I actually walked out once after having sat at a table for 30 minutes without being served a glass of water or shown a menu. I'm sure purists and loyal customers will take offence, but this has been consistently my experience, hence the rating. Anyway, enough said.

As for dÈcor and ambiance, Sakura is tight, cramped and bustling at almost any time of the evening, on almost any day of the week. The old rice paper screens that separate the booths have seen better days, but the privacy they provide is admirable. I hate to watch other people eat, and they probably don't like to see me too much either, so I always try to get a table at the south end of the dining room, where booths abound. Prices at Sakura have always been reasonable, and have resisted the presumably powerful urge to increase in the face of lofty competition. Uni, for instance, runs $5.40 for a serving of two pieces, as opposed to around $10 elsewhere. The fabulous soft shell crab roll, almost a meal in itself, runs a modest $8.25.

When dining at Sakura, I usually like to throw myself upon the mercy of the sushi chef, and let him prepare whatever is good and fresh. On a recent visit, my friend and I enjoyed a large plate of assorted sushi, the Nigiri Yokozuna, for $26.95. This included salmon, yellowtail, mackerel, shrimp, tuna and flounder, all of which were laudably fresh, delicate and beautifully defined in terms of flavor and texture.

Thinking more with our eyes than our stomachs, we also ordered a plate of sashimi for $45. This indulgent little offering included some exquisitely tender, fatty tuna from the belly of the fish that was almost worth the price of admission on its own. Some slices of squid, sliced to transparent thinness, exploded on the palate, taking on a creamy, buttery texture that was at once both unusual and thrilling. With the addition of some giant clam, some slices of delightfully oily mackerel and yet more flounder, I was in sushi heaven.

Although there are plenty of hot dishes on the menu at Sakura, I always stick to the fish, straying only rarely to venture into some beef-wrapped scallions or a bit of teriyaki chicken. There are now also a couple of high-quality (and accordingly higher-priced) sakes on the menu, which should more than satisfy even those with more eclectic tastes in this department.

Despite her advanced years and creaking timbers, this grand old dame of Indianapolis fine dining still more than holds her own against the burgeoning competition, mostly by keeping up with the times and never falling back on tried and true formulas. If the crowds that flock here nightly are anything to go by, then Sakura will in all likelihood continue to impress us over the coming years.

Hear each Friday morning at 9 on WXNT-AM, 1430.

Sakura Japanese Restaurant
7201 N. Keystone Ave. 259-4171
Lunch Monday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Dinner Monday-Thursday 5-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday 5-11 p.m. Sunday 5-9 p.m.
Food : 4 stars
Atmosphere : 3 stars
Service : 2 stars

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