Hours: 5pm-10pm Monday-Thursday; 5pm-11pm Friday-Saturday; 5pm-10pm Sunday
Once upon a time I had never tried sushi. Most people in my kingdom gagged at the thought of putting raw fish into their mouths. Then one day I made a friend who was a chef at a fancy restaurant. In his spare time, he ate sushi. In fact, he treated himself to expensive raw fish on a weekly basis. He invited me to his restaurant of choice, a place called Shiki. They made the most amazing smelt roe sashimi with raw quail egg, and from that day on I was hooked. End of story.
Except for one thing: Shiki closed. But luckily, a new little sushi spot has taken its place. Sakura, meaning "tree blossom" in Japanese, now stands on Park Avenue where Shiki was located for 19 loyal years.
The first thing I noticed is that Sakura looks nothing like the muted pastel tree blossoms that the name conjures. From the moment you enter the room, primary color bombards you, starting with Florida-Gator-orange walls. Bright white sconces cast an orange cloud upward and bright-red lamps hang over the bar, and just when you think you've had enough crayola, the menu arrives. It's laminated fluorescent yellow.
Speaking of the menu, I have a bone to pick about Sakura's. It's daunting, listing more than 150 items on the first page alone. One of my dining companions actually compared it to a wholesale catalog. We must have asked the server to come back five times before we actually ordered, not because we hadn't looked at the menu, but because we kept staring at it and still couldn't concentrate on what it was offering.
When we finally finished ordering, we looked up to find the room abuzz with Friday-night traffic. The server brought over a pot of delicately brewed tea and we settled in for a comfy evening, passing, pouring, chatting and sipping until our food arrived.
To start, we had negimaki ($6.95), tiny tournedos of beef, asparagus and green onions smothered in sweet soy paste. Unfortunately, the beef didn't complement the asparagus, a complete surprise to me. Both flavors battled for attention with vastly different undertones. Next we tried sautéed spinach with shiitakes ($5.95), and it more than made up for our disappointment with the beef. This dish combined the sharp, clean flavor of wilted spinach with meaty shiitakes.
Sweet fried tofu ($3) was also an excellent starter. The pleasingly mellow flavor of bean curd skin ensconced a clump of finely spiced rice. At first this creation seemed bland, but it had an alluring quality. I kept reaching for more. One of the people I was dining with was a veteran of this dish and heartily approved as he bit into his third piece.
As I mentioned earlier, the menu items kind of blur together, so when we focused in on a roll called "Unforgettable" ($9.95), we paused more because it distinguished itself by title than for the ingredients it contained. However, the combination of eel, avocado and crunch with sweet eel sauce did stand out as one of the evening's best. The selection of vegetable rolls was rather boring, and my sweet tofu-eating friend only eats vegetable rolls, so we tried most of Sakura's. Only one stood out the veggie roll ($4), which had a small hit of pickled burdock with avocado and asparagus. This combo was fresh and a knockout for the non-veggie crowd, as well. Spicy crawfish roll ($5.95) paired small Gulf Coast crustaceans with Japanese mayonnaise, pieces of tempura and fish roe. Other rolls we tried: Hawaiian roll ($9.95), a bundle of fresh salmon, tuna, white tuna and yellowtail with crisp cucumbers and fresh avocado, and salmon skin roll ($4.95), which had a nice smoky flavor alongside tempura crunch these crunchies seem to be one of their specialties and scallions that added pungent flavor.
In addition, the vast menu has a small section of prepared entrees and an even smaller section of noodle dishes. For a sake bar, the selection isn't very wide, but they do offer some good choices (like the cold unfiltered pearl, $12).
And all on Park Avenue lived happily ever after.
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