We began with Kirk’s new recommendations, starting with tako wasabi, diced raw octopus in a fierce wasabi-based sauce. The more I ate, the better I liked it. “This is the most tender octopus I’ve ever tasted,” said the Lynnester, a posse regular and the voice of the Midwest. (Her mom’s a gourmet French cook, but they’re from the frigid suburban wilds of northern Michigan — Lynne can only be pushed so far with exotica.) Ikura oroshi was easy — clean-tasting salmon caviar over grated daikon. What’s not to like? Lynne, the toughest critic, loved this one.
Everyone was melted by the melting miso-marinated black cod. It’s one of the world’s richest fishes (sometimes called “sable”) and served smoked in Jewish delis at a price only slightly lower than smoked sturgeon but higher than the best lox. The flesh was utterly tender, the soft skin savory with the marinade. Many upscale restaurants serve this prepared no better than here but at triple the price.
Salt-grilled shioyaki, sea bass, came in small portions. Nice, but not really that thrilling in so extensive a meal for so many people. (It’s too small and subtle to withstand all the conversation, whereas the black cod stopped the conversation as we tasted it.)
In addition to the uni with spinach, we ventured on the uni pasta (not one of Kirk’s favorites, but he says that other people like it, and we did). It offers spaghetti in a thin, creamy coral-colored sauce with bits of sea urchin and a polka-dotting of salmon roe. It’s a big bowlful o’ fun. Better yet, it comes with a small salad and a small bowl of mysteriously delicious miso soup — big, bright flavors (maybe from sweet cooked scallions?) in this usually reticent potion. I’ve never tasted a better one.
Kirk’s wife likes the shisamo, grilled tiny freshwater smelts served whole. (The best part, as Lynne discovered to her shock, is the crispy head; until this meal, she’d been a fish-head virgin.) The flesh of the little fish was fairly dry, but a splash of the house’s light soy sauce helped a lot. And chicken karaage, Japanese fried “chicken nuggets,” were lightly battered and tender, alluring with real chicken flavor and a mayo-based dip. The Spanish mackerel sashimi was once again a showpiece — it made me wish I had time and money to come back a third time before deadline, sit at the sushi bar this time and find out what else the ruggedly handsome itamai can do.
With seven people at this meal, I diverged from Kirk’s recommendations to try several dishes I often enjoy at other Japanese restaurants. These proved that Sakura isn’t perfect, after all. Mixed tempura (with dry whitefish substituting for the customary shrimp, plus succulent fried veggies including sliced sweet onion) was merely standard, as were fried oysters, with dips of the same light mayo and sweet-sour mixture we’d enjoyed earlier. Chawan mushi, usually a delicate egg custard, was rather indelicate, even coarse in texture. Skewered sausage was just sausage, nothing exciting.
All that food ran about $20 a person for the first meal, $28 for the second, not including drinks, tax, tip. (Beware! Draught beer is inexpensive, but the sake list runs high. The cheapest Nigori, for instance, is $18 for a 375 mm bottle, and tastes just like Takara, which runs $6 at most sushi bars.) But Izakaya Sakura still offers a gracious welcome and a comfortable setting, fascinating food, and charming, competent service. ■
★★★1/2 (Very Good to Excellent)
3904 Convoy Street, #121, 959-569-6151; izakayasakuramenu.info (a third-party website with truncated menu, not directly from restaurant)
HOURS: Monday–Saturday 11:30 a.m.–3:00 p.m., 5:00–midnight; Sundays noon–11:00 p.m.
PRICES: $2.50–$20. Small plates average about $6, rice- or noodle-based entrées about $9, large fish dishes and sashimi plates $15 and up.
CUISINE & BEVERAGES: Full spectrum of Japanese dishes from tapas to noodles, rice bowls, tempura, hot pots, sushi, sashimi. Beers, sakes (expensive), soju.
PICK HITS: Miso-marinated black cod; ankimo (monkfish liver); aji (Spanish mackerel) sashimi; agedashi tofu; spinach with uni (sea urchin); uni pasta; miso soup; tako (octopus) wasabi; ikura oroshi (salmon roe with daikon); chicken karaage (Japanese “chicken nuggets”). Also likely worth trying: an evening at the sushi bar.
NEED TO KNOW: Located in the back of the mall with House of Pancakes, next to hookah joint, with no sign (look for #121). Two huge menus, “pick hits” on both. Website menu is third-party, inaccurate, covering only the most conventional dishes. Small restaurant: Don’t all invade it this weekend, or the kitchen will be overwhelmed and you’ll be displeased — please spread yourselves out over a few weeks.