An arrangement of lanterns fashioned from darkened copper and wood line the entrance to the Japanese restaurant Sakura, located at 371 Franklin Ave. The projection of the lanterns' soft glow gives light to the shoots of green bamboo standing staunchly behind them. Entering into the dining area, smells of the night's preparations begin to swirl the nostrils, adding yet another factor to an already sensory experience. Dim blue lights line a marble sushi bar, emitting an azure glow that meets and blends with the restaurant's intimate setting. In the background, soft tones of music hush with a low murmur of diners and the intermittent clink of glass and ceramic.
After a warm greeting and prompt seating, five pairs of eyes scan the black leather-bound menus laid before them. Appetizers are ordered, and meal choices are selected. To wet the palette, a kettle of Chrysanthemum Ocean Tea is ordered. The subtly sweet tisane (herbal infusion) of chrysanthemum, rock sugar and goji berries arrives in a blue-tinted cast-iron kettle, accompanied by small, ore-colored tea cups. The combination of mild ocean tea suspended in weighted cups, which give a pleasant feeling of heaviness when held, bring a certain sense of calmness to the table.
Soon enough, several starting dishes are brought from the kitchen and placed quietly below the noses of a gathered family's conversation and laughter. To begin, several bowls of the traditional white (Shiromiso) Miso soup are offered, followed shortly by green salads aside dishes of sweet, carrot ginger dressing. In between sips of tea, from a pot which never seems to empty, the simplicity of a soup and a salad are consumed.
Before appetizers can even arrive—roasted eggplant with miso and soy (yakinasu); fried pork dumpling (gyoza) served with a small boat of distinctive soy-vinegar dipping sauce; and steamed, lightly salted baby soybeans (edamame)—they are gone, which is to say they were delectable.
Taste aside, the visual presentation of each dish is clean and creative. The shape of the yakinasu parallels that of sushi, with each plum-colored piece placed consecutively to form a tidy ring atop a white plate. Much of the food, aesthetically speaking, seems to speak about a contrast in color: puce eggplant next to raw, green soybean; bleached white rice aside tawny dumplings; and, later on, thick umber chocolate drizzled between a linen white plate and earthy green tea ice cream.
Although stomachs are quite satisfied and any hunger already satiated, the main course has yet to arrive. Among five, each has ordered one of the Bento boxes from the lunch menu. Bento, a single portion meal common in Japanese cuisine, traditionally consists of rice, fish or meat, and one or more pickled or cooked vegetables. Sakura's spruced up Bento boxes, served in various hand-crafted lacquerware, provide more than enough to eat—essentially, each one is a fancy lunchbox filled with delicious preparations, most likely very different from anything you were accustomed to as a child.
Each meal holds white rice (with the option for brown); your choice of either vegetable tempura (carrots, zucchini, shrimp, eggplant, and sweet potato battered and lightly fried), or chicken, steak, shrimp or salmon served in a brown sauce with sautéed onions and sprouts; three small, but tasty shrimp dumplings; and six pieces of California roll.
As if the entire meal is not enough, five sets of eyes once again scan the menus, only now they rummage through a list of desserts. Once served, the smoothly textured tiramisu hold its own with layers of savoiardi dipped in espresso, cocoa, mascarpone and sugar. By its lonesome, the green tea ice cream possesses a perfectly blended flavor located halfway between sweet cream and green tea. In another dish, a deep fried sphere of dough breaks open to reveal melting ice cream—the two mixing to form just the right amount of cold sweetness and warm crunch. At last, two orders of Mochi—a frozen Japanese rice cake made of glutinous rice pounded into paste, filled with different flavored ice creams and molded into shape—make their way to the table, boasting subtle flavors of mango, vanilla, red bean and green tea.
Once again, presentation is meticulous, with chocolate and cherry syrups drizzled to form bamboo leaves, cherry blossoms (the translation of 'sakura'), and the words 'Sakura' and 'Japanese', all garnished with whipped cream.