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Sakura Is Back

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It gives me quite enormous pleasure to announce that, after a year or two in the culinary wilderness, Sakura, the city’s inexpensive Sushi staple, is back on form.

Sakura has been the place to go for Japanese food in Colombo since it was founded in 1983. I think my infant-self first visited just a few years later. With its tatami-mat floors, plastic-food display, Japanese garden and on loop 60’s J-pop soundtrack even in the 80’s it seemed to channel the spirit of an older Japan. As the decades went by the interior of the restaurant barely changed, so by say 2010 the place was an absolute time-warp. A piece of 70’s Japan stranded in sea-side Kollupiitya.

While the decor was frozen-in time over the years the food remained fresh, tasty and extremely well-priced - for good Japanese food. There were days circa the mid 90’s when its Sushi platters could rival the offerings of much more upscale Japanese restaurants. Even on days when the food wasn’t stellar it was never less than good. Rich, eggy Katsu don, well formed Tekamaki, and their filling and excellent Teka Don - thick slices of ruby red tuna on top of a bowl of sushi rice.

There was a point where I found myself sitting on their Tatami-floor every week. Our visits were so regular that, as with anything you see regularly, we didn’t quite notice the changes. The fraying partitions, and moldy corners, the increasingly soporific service, a gradual decline in the freshness of the food. Suddenly though I made a few visits to Nihonbashi and Ginza Hohsen and noticed the gap between the city’ upscale Sushi purveyors and Sakura had widened considerably. Even at much lower prices you don’t wont your raw fish to be anything less than perfectly fresh.

So I defected. I switched my Sushi affections to Nihonbashi, Ginza Hohsen and Cafe Japan. Of course, I still had a place in my heart for Sakura - but on one recent visit (a month ago) I found the place almost dead. They had lost their liquor license, there were no other patrons, service was glacial and the fish wasn't fresh. This was it, I thought, Sakura has finally died. I even hailed Naniyori as its successor for mid priced Japanese food.

My 30 year love affair was over. But then it's Sakura, and last week craving Sushi, unable to face a trip out to Nawinna (Naniyori) and just for old times sake I snuck back. I walked down the absolutely familiar stretch of Rhienland place expecting the same frayed front, the empty interior, the peeling walls – I didn’t find it.

Sakura was packed, and packed largely with Japanese customers. The interior had been thoroughly revamped - no more peeling paper, fresh plastic food displays, clean, unfrayed Tatami mats. The liquor was back. It was absolutely disorienting - Sakura hadn’t really changed in my life time but the refurbishment was long over due and it still retains a distinct 70’s Japan feel but without the dilapidation and mold.

Of Course, decor is one thing, and food is another. Still given the effort made on the interior for the first time in a long time I waited with keen anticipation for my Sakura meal. It didn’t disappoint. We ordered butter clams - Rs. 500 not quite Ministry of Crab standard but good and great value – the bivalves' unique, smokey sweetness drizzled in golden butter. Of course we also got a bowl of Teka Don (Rs 900)- Sakura’s signature - fantastic. Absolutely perfect pieces of glistening, blood-red fish, and generous amounts of it – the rice was maybe a tad too warm but the quality of the fish obscured this failing. Nihonbashi would have struggled to do better as the fish, in this case, was flawless.

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We also ordered an oyako don (Rs. 600) tasty but not excellent and some nigiri Sushi which also benefited from the same excellent tuna as the Teka Don. This was really good food and with a total bill of Rs. 4000 - with drinks and generous portions this was Sakura as it was in the old days. As a real endorsement of this resurrection - next to us sat two Japanese businessmen relaxing who spent the duration of their meal muttering - oishii, oishii - delicious.

Its been a long time since I had delicious food at Sakura - I even went back two days later to make sure that the experience wasnt a one off - it was just as good. So I feel fairly confident announcing that Sakura is back. If, like me, you gave up on the place at some point over the last couple of years try it now, go soon, go at the early 7ish dinner time favored by Nihon Jin.

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