Location: 5882 Forbes Ave., Squirrel Hill; 412-422-7188
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 4:30-10 p.m.; Fri. 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 4:30-11 p.m.; Sat. 1-11 p.m.; Sun. 1-9 p.m.
Prices: Starters $4-10; Entrees $9-19
Fare: Japanese with a Chinese accent
Atmosphere: Bright and casual
Liquor: Full bar
Smoking: None permitted
Shortly after Pittsburgh finally caught on to the popularity of sushi -- remember the linebacker's wife who wanted to leave due to our provincial shortage in that area? Anyone? -- we got caught up in a retro fashion for hibachi, the showmanlike flipping-and-frying Japanese cuisine. And like a lot of retro fashions, it has never quite gone out of style. Cold fish and hot grill: both styles of Japanese dining have their charms. But lost in translation was the actual, authentic experience of Japanese cuisine. For most Japanese, sushi is not a daily dining experience, nor is eating in the company of a knife-wielding chef. There is a whole set of simple, warm, tasty and healthy Japanese dishes that has rarely, if ever, reached Pittsburgh's tables.
Sakura, which means "cherry blossom" in Japanese, begins to put this omission to rights. It has a sushi bar, yes, and it serves hibachi platters. But grill tables are nowhere in sight, and the menu balances these familiarities with steaming udon noodle soups, and a blend of other Japanese plus Chinese-inflected dishes.
Jason began with gyoza soup, thinking that these two great tastes should go great together. Rather than a unique recipe, however, the soup proved to be just two Japanese dumplings dropped into in a broth indistinguishable from standard wonton soup. At least the gyoza themselves were far more richly flavored than typically bland wontons. The appetizer version of the same gyoza had deliciously crispy, almost brittle wrappers.
Agedashi tofu, deep-fried planks of bean curd, were also airy and crispy on the outside, but superbly tender, even silky, within. While the tofu had all the flavor of, well, bean curd, and the dipping sauce was bland enough that one member of our party began substituting the ginger-miso dressing from her iceberg lettuce salad, the exceptional texture made for a worthwhile dish.
Takusu, an addictive salad of sliced squid, was served on a bed of chopped seaweed, lightly dressed in citrusy ponzu sauce and scattered with sesame seeds. In a reversal of expectations, the squid was more tender than the seaweed, which actually made for a pleasant textural contrast when the two were eaten in the same bite.
A selection of sushi spanned the spectrum from unexceptional (hirame, or flounder, nigiri) to unusual and delicious (kobashira, a battleship roll of minced scallop with tobiko, or roe). Tekka maki is a simple preparation of tuna rolled in rice and seaweed, but Sakura's version was, like the kobashira, superb and well balanced, with plenty of flavorful and meaty fish.
Tonkatsu is a Möbius strip of a dish, a Japanese interpretation of a Western pork dinner eaten at an American Japanese restaurant, in which pork cutlets are breaded with panko and fried to a crisp. With the sauce on the side, it's a preparation that leaves the chef nowhere to hide; Sakura's acquitted himself admirably well, serving moist pork covered in audibly crunchy breading.
Angelique wanted so much not to be disappointed in her udon, but in the end, she was. Though the thick buckwheat noodles had a good, substantial texture, the vegetables were meager: a few shreds of boiled carrot, celery, mushroom and onion. In the vegetarian version, there is no more. In the chicken version, tender white meat at least rounded out the broth, which was otherwise lacking in distinction.
Other dishes at Sakura, such as popcorn chicken and a chicken and pork hot pot, are Chinese-inspired. If Sakura is not exactly a little slice of Japan, it is a place where Japanese food has more than one dimension, and much of it is quite good.