S&C’s food critic Emily Priest finds her new favourite restaurant amid the colour and chaos of Albert Road.
Sakura, situated on Albert Road, was established in 2009 as the first Japanese restaurant in Portsmouth. Now, in 2018, it has become my number one place to eat.
Open lunchtimes and evenings Monday to Thursday, and all day Friday to Sunday, Sakura is available for all occasions. Whether you want a light lunch or an extravagant dinner, this authentic Japanese restaurant will meet the case.
I have always wanted to eat in Sakura but for the past year, I have been ‘umming’ and ‘ahhing’ about whether to venture inside. The reason? I don’t like sushi and I always thought Sakura was just a sushi joint. After all, the windows are plastered with images of the various sushi dishes they serve – and nothing else. But I was wrong – Sakura serve a lot more than fish rolled in sticky rice and seaweed.
I visited on a busy Saturday night and, although I hadn’t booked, the staff were eager to accommodate me. They promptly found me a table, sat me down and gave me a menu.
In 2013, I visited Japan – Tokyo to be precise – and fell in love. The culture, landscapes and food – definitely the food – stole my heart. Ever since then I’ve been searching for good Japanese fare in the UK, but to no avail. Wagamama is poor in comparison to the genuine article while Brighton’s Pompoko comes closer, but doesn’t quite cut the wasabi.
Sakura is authentic, especially on the aesthetics. But what about their food? They nailed that too.
The menu is a thick booklet with countless pages of vegetarian, fish, duck and beef sushi. There’s also sashimi, stir fries, tempura sides, teriyaki, dumplings, tofu, udon noodles, soba noodles and at least 8 different types of ramen. *Gasps for breath*
All the choice could be overwhelming if you aren’t used to Japanese cuisine and unsure what to order. But, the teishoku (set meals) solve this problem. There 11 variations each include a form of meat such as sashimi or deep fried katsu (pork), squid rings or dumplings, vegetable rolls, rice, salad, miso soup and pickles. It’s a lovely blend of ingredients.
I ordered one and a glass of Takana plum wine.
I didn’t have to wait long for my food but whilst I did I pondered the menu again. I had two questions. What on earth was the ‘hell ramen’? And how was it all so cheap? The sushi portions are around £4 apiece and the larger noodle dishes only £8 (roughly). My teishoku meal was the most expensive on the menu at £13. Worth it, though, given it was like a starter and main combined.
It all came as on large tray with compartments for each element of the meal. On one side was a slab of fried pork, on the other a heap of rice, a medium-sized bowl of soup and three chunky sushi rolls. I already knew it would be too much but either way, I tackled it with flailing chopsticks.
The salad was a small bowl of shredded lettuce with a chunk of tomato and some pink sauce I assumed to be Thousand Island. Nice, if nothing special. The sushi vegetable rolls had avocado and cucumber in the middle. They didn’t take my fancy much, but they were very refreshing and cleared my palate for the food ahead.
The golden crispy-coated pork was cut into thin strips. It combined beautifully with the mysterious pot of sauce that I can best describe it a soy and barbecue sauce hybrid.
The rice was piping hot, sticky and almost sweet, just like the real thing in Japan. I moved on to the small saucer of pickles. I took a bite, regretted it and then took a swig of my plum wine. I also regretted this. The drink, although sugary and appetising, had a thick texture like cough syrup. It’s good to sip, but a huge mouthful in one go is not advised. It’s too rich.
Left was the miso soup and three crispy squid rings. Although lacking flavour, the squid was hot and chewy. The battered outside was perfect – not too greasy or heavy.
At this point, I had to give up despite all that was left on my plate. Patting my belly and slumping in my chair, I rounded things off with the warming miso soup. If you haven’t had miso soup before, be warned – it is a peculiar flavour. Not bad, just peculiar. It’s like a strong mix of fish and beef stock. I was left very satisfied, though.
It took a while for the waiting staff to clear my table. Although they were quick to bring it to me, they didn’t seem to notice I was finished. The restaurant had grown busy but not that busy. Maybe I really had left that much food.
When the waiter did finally come over, he flashed me a big smile and asked if I wanted to take my food home. Appreciating their extra effort, I said ‘yes’ and asked to see the desserts. About five minutes later, the waiter came over again, menu in one hand and a filled bag in the other. They had put each food item in a separate Tupperware box and had even added some packets of sauce and ginger. I was so happy about this I ordered some vanilla ice cream mochi.
I had never had mochi before. I found it quite weird. It’s made from rice and, at Sakura, is served to you in three big balls. I picked up one and took a bite. The inside was filled with creamy vanilla ice cream and the outside layer was a rubbery and floury texture that doesn’t taste of much. Once again I must reiterate that it’s not bad, just weird. By the third ball, I had come to think that there was something moreish about the odd taste and consistency. That said, I wasn’t fond of how chewy they were. My jaw gets enough exercise as it is…
My bill came to just over £20. I knew I’d be back. Maybe next time I’d try their sushi or find out what the ‘hell’ ramen is all about.
As if I would ever be so daring.
Sakura is a powerful argument as to why we must celebrate Portsmouth for its food, not just its history or creative scenes. It’s something different amongst all the pubs and coffee shops on Albert Road and we’re lucky to have it.
I recommend this restaurant to everyone, even to those who aren’t very experimental in their tastes. It can be daunting to try new cuisine but well worth it in Sakura’s case. The only blemish on my visit was the slow service.
Anyway, food this good is worth waiting for.
Photography by Emily Priest