"After 20 years, Sakura still satisfies with authentic Japanese standards
A few tables over, a young hipster — baseball cap cocked to the side, arm draped casually around Mom — introduces his parents to the virtues of the spider roll. At the far corner by the sushi bar, a man and a woman squeeze together for a photo, beaming. An anniversary? An engagement? In another corner, a quartet of young women in medical scrubs sip Japanese beers and wait for their miso soup. Like any night at this Keystone Avenue institution, the chatter is at high tilt. Nary a seat isn’t taken. Suddenly, the whole restaurant turns: A woman only days away from having a baby hobbles in, headed for a booth. The scene seems all too incongruous; warnings about raw shellfish run through our heads. Soon enough, we turn back to our chopsticks, glad for the babble to rise again to its pleasant din.
No one could mistake sushi for a recent trend, even though we all know people who haven’t tried it. But few Japanese restaurants draw such a diverse cross-section of the sushi-loving populace as Sakura. Then again, few sushi joints have been serving Indianapolis diners their first tastes of octopus or eel for as long as Sakura. (Is any other as old?) Amazing as it seems, Sakura is celebrating its 20th birthday next week. That’s 20 years of California rolls, teriyaki and tempura shrimp. Twenty years of bona fide Japanese standards, prepared as consistently as at any other place in town. No wonder this place is crowded every night.
Indeed, a quick Google search reveals almost universal raves. Many people ate their first sushi here; some celebrate their birthdays here every year. If they cite any issues with this place it’s service — waiting over an hour for a table, being ignored, having a waitress reject a special request. Returning to check the place out on the eve of its anniversary, I was reminded that, while no one could call the waitresses gregarious, even warm, there’s a no nonsense quality about the service here that’s refreshing in an age of duplicitous, tip-hungry congeniality. These women might not call you “honey,” but they’ll tell you what’s good, what to order or how something is made. Like your mother, they’ll raise their eyebrows if you’re ordering too much, but they’ll be happy to pack it up for your lunch the next day.
The food at Sakura has held up surprisingly well over the years. Sushi is as fresh as ever, with rice seasoned judiciously, and rolls tight and tidy with a perfect mouth feel. On our visit, the sea bass nigiri ($3.95) our waitress recommended was clean and buttery with a good hit of wasabi. Octopus ($3.95) was quite tender, if not the best any of us had had. A soft-shell crab roll ($8.25) wasn’t as crisp as sometimes, but the generous slather of spicy mayonnaise inside made these as luscious as ever. Asparagus tempura rolls ($3.75) were perfectly crisp, cool and delicious.
Non-sushi sides offered some highlights of Sakura’s menu, which continues to be one of the more wide-ranging Japanese menus in town. A rich negimayaki ($5.25) beef roll had an unmistakable fried exterior, with its familiar yellow cheese and crunchy green onion inside. Agedashi dofu ($4.25) were light, silky squares of deep-fried tofu in a surprisingly complex, slightly sweet broth. Especially good was the gomaae ($3.95), a must of an appetizer here that marries tender boiled spinach with a super creamy sesame sauce.
Cold zaru soba noodles ($6.95) were a little starchy and not as chilled as they might be, though flakes of nori provided nice contrast. Tempura udon ($7.95) offered perfectly chewy, thick noodles, and bits of radish, mushroom and spinach helped perk up a quite mild broth. Teriyaki halibut ($14.25) was perhaps a bit overcooked, though the crispy edges and the salty sweet sauce almost made up for it.
Though she made it clear she thought we were overeating, our waitress said we should try the tempura ice cream ($3.50) for dessert. Its coating could have been crisper, but the warm contrast of the fried dough with the vanilla ice cream inside had us back at the State Fair. Is it this kind of comforting finale, the overall affordability of the place, or the way this casual eatery has made sushi so accessible that has helped it reach a second decade? Whatever the reason, it’s time to wish Sakura a happy birthday — and to hope it will have many more.
7201 N. Keystone Ave.
Monday-Thursday: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; 5-9:30 p.m.
Friday: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; 5-10:30 p.m.
Saturday: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; 5-10:30 p.m.
Sunday: 5-9:30 p.m.
Food: Four stars
Atmosphere: Three and a half stars?
Service: Three and a half stars
Recommended dishes: nigiri sea bass, tuna, soft-shell crab roll, asparagus tempura rolls, gomaae, udon