350 Saint Peter St., St. Paul
Is Sakura, the Japanese restaurant in downtown St. Paul, anything like a sock in the eye? No, not really. Is it anything like an old dresser, made carefully by using dovetails to join incomprehensibly tough oak boards? Again, not really. But is it anything like a comfortable old bathrobe, or a perfect black cocktail dress, or that one pair of shoes that goes from nightclub to book reading to family dinner and always looks right? Again, no, not exactly.
But kind of.
It's kind of all of those things.
In a way that only certain Japanese restaurants without ostentation can ever be. Certain Japanese restaurants that excel in countless small ways, serving lovely pieces of onion-marinated salmon bellies a thousand miles from any ocean, in the northern reaches of our long-dry Midwestern sea.
As for the sock in the eye part, they did put in a very nice new bar. The walls glow a deep red; the sparkling windows show off the windy, brick-built melancholy of St. Paul to rare effect.
Now, those windows are quite new. For Sakura, if you haven't been there lately, is just emerging from, depending on how you calculate it, a year, or four years, of renovations. One of those devilish, sorrowful renovations that survives the contractors who began work on it, that reveals every scrap of drywall to have concealed three layers of brick. But they are nearly done. There are new bathrooms, and room now for some 150 seats. Soon there will be some booths in the new bar, and that will be the end of it: Not only will St. Paul have the one Japanese restaurant you would want if you could only have one Japanese restaurant, it will have it, in the grand old St. Paul tradition, exactly where it was in the Clinton administration, and selling everything at those back-then prices.
One of the ways Sakura stands out from the local pack has always been the restaurant's long list of hot and cold snacks meant for nibbling with a beer or sake--kind of a Japanese way of tapas. On a series of visits lately I was charmed by many of the offerings: Shisamo ($4.25) is a plate of whole, finger-sized smelt, bursting with pink roe, brined, and then fire-grilled till they're edged with black. Each one is as roasty as a campfire and as rich and gamy as a sweetbread; when you eat them up, bones, head, and all, you feel particularly emboldened, filled suddenly with omega-3s and calcium, and very Japanese.
The hijiki ($3.95) is a tiny salad of wispy, smoky seaweed accented with a few crunchy yam noodles; it tastes like nothing so much as the salty smoke from a bonfire on the beach made flesh. Order the yudofu ($4.50) and you get a tureen of tender tofu squares and fresh leafy vegetables in broth. You dip the contents of the tureen into a separate bowl of concentrated soy-rich broth, and darn if there's a healthier happy-hour snack on earth. To counteract that healthiness, be sure to order a daily special that has been offered on all of my recent visits, mirugai butter yaki ($4.95)--bite-sized cutlets of clam braised in miso and butter until they're unimaginably rich and tender. I think of them now as the poor man's foie gras.
If none of the above salty, savory lovelies appeals to you, please know there are more than 50 other hot and cold snacks to have with your drinks, which is to say nothing of the sushi. In my experience, treats from the sushi bar at Sakura tend to be nice, fresh, and reliable, if not particularly showy or ethereal. One night my date and I had the chefs put together a $20 sashimi plate, and were given quick proof that the salmon, tuna, yellowtail, mackerel, and striped bass were all what they should be. A "salmon toro" special, in which salmon belly was served nigiri-style with a scattering of marinated spiced onions, was sweet and elegant, like a Swedish ceviche.
The sushi chefs, jolly, madcap Hiro and swashbuckling Ivan, are amazing to watch, filling sushi orders at twice the speed of ordinary sushi chefs, but still always willing to take a few extra seconds to crack a quail egg onto a patty of spicy tuna for a special customer. The head chef, Haru, maintains remarkable consistency on all his far-flung tables.
I should also mention that Sakura has the best vegetarian sushi offerings in the state. For proof, try the vegetable sushi combo ($16.50). When a friend of mine got it, she received a pretty pink roll of yabu, a sort of tofu skin, wrapped around a prettily arranged pinwheel of sweet and crunchy root vegetables, and a number of nigiri pieces topped inventively with things like a pad of blanched spinach, asparagus spears tied elegantly with seaweed belts, and cucumbers cut into lengthy fans.
The restaurant's final strength is its inexpensive list of yakizakana teishoku meals, which are the blue plate specials, the meat loaf and mashed potatoes of everyday Japan. I particularly liked the humble saba shioyaki ($12.95), which was centered on two fire-grilled chunks of crisp and salty mackerel, the skin as crisp as bacon, the salty, pure flesh smoky and clean. This meal also comes with rice, vegetables, and a bowl of clear soup.
These home-style meals and casual, inexpensive snacks prove an irresistible draw for two fairly disparate groups: first, homesick Japanese expats, often 3M and Unisys employees, who can be found at two or three tables near the sushi bar, and second, youngish St. Paul couples with a child or two in tow. Nearly every time I've been to Sakura I've seen a table or two with a little blond-headed child munching on a chicken skewer or gumming a tempura shrimp.
I spoke to Miyoko Omori, Sakura's owner, on the phone for this story, and she told me that these St. Paul children have been instrumental to Sakura's past. She started the restaurant when her marriage dissolved, on little but hope and prayers. "When I first opened in Galtier Plaza, we had a lot of babies come in, not like most Japanese restaurants," she said. "First, they might eat rice, or chicken on skewers. Then, over time, I've seen it so many times, they just start eating authentic Japanese food. Now these babies grew up to be young women and young men. They come in on a date. They see me grow from zero to what I have now. I see them grow from zero, too, and now they bring in their own little ones.
"There's always a family feeling in St. Paul," Omori continues. "It fits my personality, I'm a homey person. My theory for restaurants is, I want people to go out of here with a happy face. I try to give them a warm meal and a friendly face that brings it to them."
I told Omori that it was unusual for someone to have such humble ambitions, especially after such a hard-fought expansion. It was also unusual, I noted, not to raise the prices to reflect it. Which is when she told me about the radical theories that underlie Sakura now. "When you get older," she told me, "you don't ask for so many things as you want to when you're young. Dozens of purses, a better car. What I have now is appreciated, being healthy, not so much material stuff. What I want now is to get [the restaurant] stabilized, and then I want to do volunteer work for children who don't have parents. That's the only thing left to do on this earth, I think. So many people have given me so much, I want to give back in return or I will never feel okay."
And that is exactly what makes Sakura such a sock in the eye.
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