It's a little after six o'clock on a Monday night and, as usual, the parking lot at Sakura is overflowing. This is the way it's been at this modest-looking Japanese restaurant, just north of the corner of 71st Street and Keystone Avenue, for the better part of 20 years.
Some of us have histories with Sakura that extend back that far. We can remember when the celebrity autographs that decorate the room only ran along one wall (now they're everywhere you look). Those were the days when discovering a place with great sushi and sashimi in Indianapolis was a big deal.
It didn't take long for Sakura to catch on. Soon you were smart to call ahead for reservations, especially on weekends. When Yogi Berra said, "Nobody goes there anymore because it's too crowded," he might have been talking about Sakura. That's how we felt, at least. Those crowds, plus the arrival of a virtual flotilla of Japanese eateries over the years, were distracting.
So it seemed like high time to reconnect with this old flame. It took about a minute to realize the folks at Sakura still had their situation well in hand.
If there can be such a thing as a neighborly Japanese restaurant in Indianapolis – a place that feels comfortable and familiar as a corner pub, yet without in any way compromising the authenticity of its origins – this is it. Sakura uses its limited space like a kind of bento box, positioning booths and tables for maximum efficiency and aesthetic effect. The result allows for both intimacy and uproariousness; you'll find couples deep in conversation and tables full of folks having a blast within arm's length of each other.
The clean lines and simplicity of the dining room reflect Sakura's menu and the presentation of its many dishes. We started with orders of Gomaae ($3.95), a bowl of steamed spinach topped with a sweet, creamy sesame sauce; Agedashi Dofu ($4.25), a quartet of good-sized tofu cubes, deep-fried with a light tempura-like batter and garnished with strips of toasted seaweed and minced daikon radish; and Kaki Fry ($6.95), four fried oysters, the size of silver dollars, served on a bed of lettuce with mustard and teriyaki sauces.
The Gomaae's tawny sesame sauce, when stirred into the dark green spinach, was delicious, free of the smothering feel that can sometimes make sesame sauce an overpowering ingredient. As for the tofu, its batter was whisper-light, giving the cubes an added texture that held the flavor of a lightly seasoned soy sauce. The oysters were tender and juicy within the crispy carapace of the more conventional batter they were fried in.
These appetizers were followed by an order of Nigiri Deluxe ($16.95) and a Vegetable Roll ($4). Nigiri is perhaps the most straightforward method of serving sushi. Short finger-length strips of raw fish and seafood are mounted on hand-formed sleds of sticky white sushi rice. Occasionally a bit of nori, toasted seaweed, is used to gently brace this package, but that's it. Sakura's presentation is pristine, without frills. My Deluxe serving consisted of eight different types of seafood, including shrimp and salmon roe, along with a tuna roll cut into six bites.
The Vegetable roll was also neatly cut into bite-size pieces, wrapped in toasted seaweed. Avocado, cucumber, and diced carrot were nicely juxtaposed with a flash of sweet pickle.
Sakura offers a basic selection of beers and sake. The servers, as always, are attentive and accommodating.
Indeed, it seems nothing has changed at Sakura – and that's saying a lot.