At Sakura Japanese Bistro, the tables are set with white cloths and Japanese ceramics, and chopsticks are tucked into artfully folded napkins. Paintings of cherry blossoms and photographs of roses adorn the softly lit walls, and servers in smart white shirts and black aprons bring trays of sushi and sake from the tucked-away kitchen (there's no sushi bar).
In other words, owners Shinji (also the chef) and Sandy Kimura have interpreted the phrase "Japanese bistro" in terms of juxtaposition rather than fusion. That approach carries over to the menu, where the Kimura's understated presentations of typical Japanese ingredients and flavors make clear the universality of the bistro concept.
The salmon served as the marinated grilled fish of the day ($16) one recent evening, for example, was evidence that simple food, well prepared and served in a comfortable atmosphere, isn't just a French thing. The fish was cooked beautifully, and the combination of just slightly caramelized soy sauce and tart citrus in the marinade accented the salmon's sweetness.
Similarly, consider the Genghis Khan-Yaki ($17): a pile of thin, tender slices of lamb, tossed with a mess of onions and cabbage and topped with matchsticks of spicy fresh ginger. Sauced with soy, sake, and garlic, the dish was complex and gently spicy, and reminded us of those classic European recipes that pair red meat with sweet spices like allspice and cloves.
Both of these dishes came from the restaurant's large plates menu, and were served with rice and miso soup. I might have also welcomed a few vegetables on the side, but then, it's probably not wise to look a gift fish in the mouth, especially when that fish is so amply portioned. In any case, there's an easy solution for diners seeking a meal with more variety: mix and match from the other sections of the menu, which include small plates, sushi (fairly extensive lists of both maki and nigiri), salads, rice porridge, and rice and noodle bowls. That's the strategy we employed on another visit, and it yielded a high ratio of hits to misses.
A dish of Japanese eggplant ($4.50) was tender and savory in its soy sauce marinade, though given the frigid weather outside, I wished it had been served hot. A salad called konnyaku usu-zukuri ($6.50) was as strange and delicious as its description on the menu suggested: "clear thin Japanese yam in a flower presentation." Pale strips of yam—their look and texture reminded us of rice noodles—formed the petals of the flower, and a dollop of rust-colored, sweet-hot ponzu sauce was its center. The only failure that night was the grilled squid ($7), which looked pretty but turned out to be overcooked, and required strenuous mastication.
But then our mushroom zosui ($5), or Japanese rice porridge, arrived and the unfortunate squid was immediately forgotten. It wasn't hard to think of the porridge, a mixture of rice, mushrooms, broth, and fresh ginger all bound together with egg and carried to the table in a little covered pot, as classic bistro fare—not unlike risotto or caussoulet, perhaps. We sampled the crab zosui ($9) on another visit, and it was equally good—this version briny with crab instead of earthy with shiitakes.
Sakura's winter menu, which will be in place by the time this review is published, will include more of this hearty, warming fare. Maine lobster soup and big bowls of thick udon noodles are in the works. Sandy Kimura, who runs the front of the house, says it's less a replacement than an expansion of the current menu: a few slow sellers will disappear, but lots more dishes will be added, including some that have been requested by customers and others that have been popular daily specials. Adventurous diners take note: the deep-fried alligator ($19.50) will remain.
For all that, something about the restaurant's current menu, with its plethora of categories, its mix of the familiar, the exotic, and the way out there, and its handwritten additions and deletions, felt a little scattered to me. That's a minor quibble, however, given that so many of the dishes are well executed and the service is so welcoming. Sakura Bistro feels like what it aims to be, a neighborhood gathering place, and in the four months since it opened has developed a contingent of fans who have become regulars. Lingering over an "Apple Sautee" ($4.50) one evening—a preparation of apples rolled in a spring roll wrapper, deep fried, and served with ice cream that seemed like an apple crepe's long-lost cousin—I wondered if I wasn't destined to join them.
Sakura Japanese Bistro, 8014 15th Ave. N.E., 206-524-4296, MAPLE LEAF. 4:30–9:30 p.m. Tues.–Thurs., 4:30–10 p.m. Fri.–Sat., 5–9 p.m. Sun. www.sakurabistro.com