DINING OUT:

My family loves sushi. We definitely have our favorite places around town. Armed with a discount coupon I received in the mail and with some trepidation, we ventured out to a new sushi place in La Crescenta called Sakura Ichi.

We were worried because we did not like the former occupant of the building, Sushi USA, which featured “All-You-Can-Eat Sushi.” There is something so very wrong with that term. It’s almost an oxymoron.

As we pulled up to the restaurant, a cute little house set back from neighboring concrete businesses, we relaxed a bit. Cheery red lanterns were swinging in the breeze and little white lights twinkled on the front patio. It was very charming.

As we entered, a friendly chorus of welcomes in Japanese brightened our mood even more. The place has only been open three weeks and the joint was jumpin’ the Friday night we were there.

The evening continued to elevate our spirits to the point where all other sushi restaurants now pale in comparison to Sakura Ichi. The decor isn’t upscale, just simple tables and a few Asian artifacts against black walls.

My son informed me the bathrooms are clean and nice. Upon being seated, we were presented with a menu and a small photo album of the chef’s specials. They have unusual names such as Salmon & Pirates, Tokyo Dream, Loveaholic, Sun & Moon, Hula Roll and Hanabi.

We ordered the lion’s share. There is also a standard sushi checklist but I recommend having a sushi adventure with the specials. At some point, a plate of warm, fresh edamame arrived with a touch of salt on the outside, kind of like soft, green peanuts. I’m afraid there’s no free miso soup or salad here, unless you count the shredded radish and other simple vegetables that come as garnishes.

At Sakura Ichi, it’s all about the freshness of the fish and the artistry of the presentation. Some sushi are rolled, but typically in something other than seaweed. Some are more like fish packets or layered fish canapes. There is a surprising shortage of rice and absolutely no ginger or wasabi offered.

This upset no one at our table or, it appeared, in the restaurant. The Tokyo Dream is the first to arrive. Melt-in-your-mouth slices of albacore with thin rounds of raw jalapeno and a drizzle of chili oil surround a stack of crispy, deep-fried onions.

Next comes the Sun & Moon. Mackerel and tuna are swirled with avocado and shrimp, and rolled in paper thin slices of cucumber, then cut to create what look like yin-yang symbols. So fresh and light, but a little tricky to pick up with chopsticks.

The Loveaholic is another light concoction. Yellowtail, lightly steamed asparagus, jalapenos and saffron threads are rolled in rice paper. If this were a wine tasting, the Loveaholic would be the first white tasted, like a Pinot Grigio. The Sakura Ichi, the restaurant’s namesake dish, might be the deepest Cabernet, the grand finale. It’s like ceviche but with sashimi-grade fish and sesame oil. It comes on a fried wonton base and has a definite spicy kick. It’s totally awesome.

I never did get a decent explanation of the reasoning behind the name Salmon & Pirates. It has something to do with Toucan Sam of Froot Loops fame dressing up as a pirate. But the sushi is tasty. It’s a packet of salmon filled with pickled cucumber and gathered at the top with a sprinkle of caviar. It intrigued us all but it isn’t anyone’s favorite.

My husband’s favorite is the Tokyo Dream, but the kids and I adore the Hanabi. It’s like nothing we’ve ever had before. An avocado and crab salad roll with thin slices of strawberry on the outside. It’s all in a light strawberry glaze that is not too overpowering. Lovely to behold and to eat.

In the same fruit vein is the remarkable Hula Roll. It features avocado, shrimp tempura, rice, nori, ground macadamia nuts and mango with a mango glaze. You might think it sounds too sweet, but it’s not.

It even tastes good with a small dip of soy sauce, though I felt a little guilty doing that within sight line of the creators.

Sam, the owner of Sakura Ichi, explains to us why he opened his new restaurant. He wanted to work with talented sushi chefs who could make his favorite kind of sushi, the kind that elevates your taste buds and brings the energy from your mouth to a higher place in your head.

After our meal, we understand what he means. Our stomachs were satisfied, and so are our spirits.


 LISA DUPUY can be reached at ldupuy@aol.com.

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