Sakura (or Sakura Casual Dining, as its Facebook page refers to the restaurant) is, in its own words, “a newly opened restaurant serving fresh and delicious Japanese and Pan Asian food. The Chef is a highly trained Professional sushi instructor.” The chef in question (I saw her slicing fish though there may have been another chef behind the scenes) was also the waitress and, presumably, proprietor in what appeared to be a one woman show, but that is not to denigrate the lady in any way – she was exceptionally warm, friendly and professional throughout, in the way hired hands can seldom achieve. Her new restaurant is more or less opposite Pentonville prison on the Caledonian Road, has a bijou dining area, and on a sample Wednesday evening visit, was almost empty. This makes for a pleasant conversation, though if Sakura’s reputation grows through word of mouth, may be a rarity in future.
Japanese dining is now well integrated into British dining culture, which is to say that it’s been commoditised into chains like Yo! Sushi for your raw fish requirements and Wagamama for your noodles, plus teppanyaki outlets and everything that can be mass-produced stockpiled on the shelves of supermarkets. A shame, since food is an art form in Japan, with the skills of a sushi chef or a noodle maker painstakingly gained over a long apprenticeship – though it’s heartening that there is space in the market for a small outlet selling high-quality produce made with personal attention at a reasonable price.
In this case, the menu consists of a range of sushi such as nigiri, maki and urimaki, a range of hot dishes and bento boxes, various sides and a range of hot and cold drinks thrown in for good measure. Nothing unusual about what we chose: one plate of meat gyoza (meat unspecified) and two bento boxes, one with chicken and pork katsu curries, plus a sampler each of tempura or sushi and drink. Call the menu a starter for ten, assuming most, except the cognoscenti, will not be familiar with the standard components of a bento box (a compartmentalised lunch box that morphed into a standard serving dish), though over time you would hope Sakura will venture out into uncharted territory and provide riskier authentic dishes.
We started with a plate of gyoza, which on this occasion were beautifully constructed. Compared to others I’ve eaten, they were far less like dumplings and far more like delicious griddled pastries, almost micro-cornish pasties, four to a portion and served with a dipping vinaigrette and a dollop of mayo (the latter seemed a strange accompaniment but maybe it is what the Japanese enjoy – nothing would surprise me!) The gyoza were, happily, the best I can recall tasting, including momo eaten in Nepal, so full marks.
So to the main course, and a word of praise for the rather beautiful bento boxes in which they came, each component presented in miniature: each katsu (breadcrumbed escalopes fried) sliced and presented in their space, sticky rice garnished with nigella seeds in its square, a pool of tepid curry sauce in the largest cavity, but then the differences in the remaining compartments: two salmon rolls, pickled radish and wasabi for me, tempura and more mayo for the lady, different dipping sauces on the side. All was as described, but for one slight issue with the description of “mixed tempura” since it consisted largely of thin slices of crisp battered potato plus one solitary slice of courgette. A few other varieties of veg would have been welcome, though at least it was cooked freshly in decent oil – for which mercy grateful thanks are due.
If I’m being honest this probably wasn’t the best Japanese food I’ve ever eaten, but at the price it was wholesome, tasty and excellent value; the fact that it is made to order rather than mass-produced makes Sakura worth visiting on its own. I mentioned value: at £12.95 per bento and £4 for the dumplings, this is bargain basement Japanese – we struggled to hit £33-odd in total for the bill, which by London standards is the sort of prices you would have paid ten years ago. Most Japanese outside the chain mould would be heading on the escalator towards £50 a head for dinner for two, so a home kitchen with economical prices in Brexit Britain is not to be sniffed at. I wish the restaurant every success and hope to return there someday to try a few more of the hot dishes and bespoke sushi.