As I downed an oyster shooter at Sakura restaurant, I realized something was strange, and it wasn't just the oyster, scallions, and raw quail egg submerged in my sake. It was that I was reviewing a Japanese restaurant. A couple years ago, I reviewed the delightful Maekawa Bar, a Japanese "tapas" place, for my very first essay for The Stranger. But this year I have written very few words on any Asian cuisine. Sakura would be my first Japanese review of 2005. How utterly lame.
Granted, this year I did go ape for May Thai Restaurant's duck, which shone a whole new light on Thai curries for me, and cheered Kaosamai for taking Thai food to the streets with its mobile kitchen. I liked feeling mothered at sunny Kusina Filipina, and in my grand Bakery Inquisition of the summer, I came across two lovely bakeries, Hiroki and Fresh Flours, where Japanese bakers were reinterpreting European pastry standards. But I skipped Vietnam, China, and Korea almost entirely. I eat sushi as often as possible, but failed to write about it once this year. What is wrong with me?
I may have skimped on Asian meals because I'm not as skilled an evaluator of Asian food as I am of other cuisines. I can tell you if something tastes good or not, but I can't always put it into context as well as I can European or American food, which I cook professionally. A lot of Asian places—Sakura included—have enormous menus, and it takes me a while to figure out what the house strengths and specialties are.
Finally there is that funny issue that happens with restaurants of all cuisines, when the food is neither good nor bad, but forgettable. I've ditched a few Asian-food reviews this year after encountering bland food, mediocre meats and vegetables, or hackneyed menus.
Sakura's menu is certainly not humdrum. The simply decorated restaurant posits itself as both a reliable sushi place and a more creative bistro, serving unusual things like pigs' feet, alligator, and beef tongue alongside familiar agedashi tofu ($5) and ton-katsu ($15.50). Our oyster shooters ($5) were hardcore, but fun in a Rocky-training-drink way; bunny stew ($8.50) in a rich soy and sweet wine gravy was country-style yum. Unfortunately, the Ghengis Khan-yaki ($17)—lamb marinated in soy, ginger, and sake—pulled from a nearly identical bag of tricks. A lovely special of toro carpaccio ($12), showered with tobiko, radish sprouts, and yuzu, was above reproach. Spanish mackerel steak ($18) was clumsy and dry, even though it was topped with a sassy garlic-mushroom sauté.
My vegan friends had to fend off blandness, as vegans often do, in a ponzu-dressed shaved-vegetable salad and in stir-fried udon noodles. But the vegetarian sushi was excellent and different from your average maki: The tropical roll ($7) had avocado, papaya, and cucumber inside, and we ordered an extra Chinese roll ($7) because we loved the tiny vegetarian egg roll enclosed inside the rice and nori. Between the rolls and the toro, I resolved to return to Sakura soon for a gluttonous sushi feast.
Sakura also works offbeat ingredients into its semi-French desserts: There was a pleasant tower of puff pastry glued together with a coconut and white-bean filling ($5.50). "We had a nice moment there," said my friend of our other dessert, a sweet potato mousse ($5) that had a soothing mashed-potato quality to it, but little complexity. "But now it's gone."
Damn, I've run out of room. In muttering about my own shortcomings, I've even managed to reduce my one Japanese review of 2005 to a few paragraphs. I'll be better next year, I promise. Until then, go visit Maneki and the Malay Satay Hut; order noodles at Shanghai Garden, Mike's Noodle House, and Szechuan Noodle Bowl; try sushi from Nishino, Otoro, or Saito's; cheap-ass bahn mi from Seattle Deli, everyday Chinese at Hing Loon, and idlis (bite-sized steamed rice cakes) at Udupi Palace in Bellevue.