“ Cuisine: Japanese / Address: 9 Albert Road / Southsea / England / Tel: 023 9275 1103 „
Portsmouth and Southsea waited a long time for the first Japanese restaurant to appear on the scene; rumour had it that Wagamama would finally be opening a branch in Gunwharf Quays, but suddenly, towards the end of 2009, the independent Sakura found a gap amongst the eclectic mix of shops, bars and restaurants of Southsea's Albert Road.
Even though Sakura is only a few minutes' walk from where I live, it took us until one Saturday afternoon in late January to decide to go and have a late lunch there. It looked tiny from the outside and perhaps not very impressive, but we had a look at the menu in the window and felt it sounded interesting so in we went, through the double doors. It was just before 2pm and I was surprised how busy the place was. What turned out to be a party of people celebrating a birthday filled a large part of the left-hand side, whilst smaller groups were seated at individual tables in the partitioned area down the right-hand side. We asked for a table for three, and a waitress led us up a couple of steps to a small area at the back in front of the bar, where there were just two tables. I was glad that it was a little quieter there. One long seat upholstered in red ran along the wall and my son and his partner sat there. I found the chairs on the opposite side to be very comfortable. The other table in this area was vacant when we arrived, but a gentleman on his own came and sat there after a while.
The table was empty except for a bottle of soya sauce when we sat down, but a waitress soon brought place mats, red paper napkins, chop sticks and menus for us. The place mats were laminated and showed the selection of sushi on offer as well as advertising Asahi beer. The menu pages were also laminated. Our drinks order was soon taken; we weren't quite in the mood for sake that day so we order two pineapple juices and an orange juice (£1.50 each). Then we studied the menu. Although I love Japanese food I haven't yet persuaded myself to try raw fish, so that eliminated a fair number of choices for me. My son's partner and I both felt the lure of the yaki udon dishes, which are thick noodles made from wheat flour, wok-fried and served with oyster sauce, green peppers, beansprouts, carrot, onion and Chinese leaves. Red ginger and fried garlic are added before serving as a garnish. My son's partner chose the yaki udon with chicken (£6.80) while I went for the seafood yaki udon with scallop, squid, mussels, shrimps and fish cake (£7.20).
Unlike me, my son is a big fan of sushi but locally has had to content himself with the offerings of Marks and Spencer and the Co-op. Not exactly the real thing. Raw fish is acceptable to him, so he ordered salmon rolls (£3.30) alongside tamago nigiri (egg sushi, £1.80) and oshinko maki (rolls with yellow pickles, £3.00). You could of course order one type of sushi as a starter rather than several as a main meal: there were six each of the salmon and pickle rolls and two of the egg rolls, which were bigger.
I can't list the whole menu here, but there are also rice-based dishes and yaki soba dishes, which are based on noodles thinner than the udon variety. Salads are priced between £3.50 and £5.20. There are thirty-six choices of side dishes, ranging from miso soup (£1.60) to grilled eel with teriyaki sauce (£7.20). Set meals go from £10.80 up to £14.30; most of them are fish based but there is one with stir fried beef in sauce, calamari, vegetable rolls, miso soup, rice, salad and pickles.
Soon after we had ordered, a waitress brought a small rectangular ceramic dish which she said went with the sushi: you pour soya sauce into it and then dip the rolls in the sauce. The sushi was brought not long after that. It is served with wasabi (very spicy) and ginger. My son put a little wasabi on top of a roll and dipped it in the sauce before tasting it. He immediately said it was wonderful - worlds away from the supermarket offerings he has had to make do with.
A few minutes later the yaki udon dishes arrived. The servings were very generous and came on slightly irregularly shaped plates that had an old-fashioned look with their floral decorations. The food definitely had more of a home-made feel about it than similar dishes served in Wagamama. I loved the variety of flavours in my seafood yaki udon; there were thin slices of fish cake, tiny prawns, a couple of whole mussels and some pieces of squid that took some finding among the bean sprouts, green peppers and Chinese leaves. I particularly loved the fresh taste of the ginger that came through all the other flavours. I should perhaps mention that no cutlery is offered as an alternative to chopsticks and eating udon noodles with chopsticks is an art I have yet to master fully, but somehow I managed. It was, however, such a large serving that I couldn't quite finish it. The chicken yaki udon was definitely approved of, so no complaints from any of us.
My son and his partner finished eating before I did and their plates were cleared away very quickly. They were asked if they would like to order more drinks, which they did. When I finally laid down my chopsticks it was a while until the waitress came to take my plate, so at least we weren't made to feel that we had to leave immediately. In actual fact by about three o'clock the place was very quiet, but when we came to pay our bill we found that a twenty per cent discount is given up until 2pm. Since the receipt showed our order time as 2.07pm, it was very generous of Sakura to have given us the discount. It does, however, explain why things had quietened down by the time we left.
We didn't have room for dessert after our huge main courses, but there isn't really a great deal of choice in that area. Other than mango fritters in syrup, there are just several types of ice cream (including green tea flavour), some at £3.50 and some at £4.00.
Our bill came to £29.70 for three main meals and five glasses of fruit juice, but after the discount we only had to pay £23.80 - just under £8.00 a head. We calculated the tip on the full amount as we had loved the food and felt the service was also excellent. The waitresses, in their kimono-style tops over trousers, were polite, friendly and very efficient.
I particularly appreciated sitting near the bar at the back and enjoying the typically Japanese décor with lanterns, cherry blossom, plump ceramic cats and and a row of Geisha girl figurines dancing along a high shelf. In the main area there is a series of Japanese masks along the wall. One amusing touch was a pair of tiny curtains adorning the door of the ladies' toilet. (Spotlessly clean, I have to say, just lacking in paper towels.) The only surprising thing was that western music was played throughout the hour we were there. The atmosphere is very relaxed: at one point I looked round our partition into the main area and noticed a little girl standing on a seat and poking chopsticks into her mother's hair! Nobody seemed to mind.
We were given a very friendly goodbye as we left along with 'See you next time,' to which I replied 'I'm sure you will!' We've waited a long time, but now it's just a hop, skip and a jump down the road to a delightful and inexpensive restaurant. If you are in the area, Sakura is slightly north of the King's Theatre on the opposite side of the road. It would be ideal for a pre-theatre dinner, unless of course you can go for lunch and take advantage of the discount. Wagamama may well be opening in Gunwharf Quays, but it will take something special to dissuade me from returning to Sakura when I feel in the mood for some Japanese cuisine.
Sakura also have a takeaway service.
Monday to Thursday 12 noon - 2.30pm and 5.30pm - 11pm
Friday and Saturday 12 noon - 11.30pm
Sunday 12 noon - 10.30pm
9 Albert Road
Tel. 023 9275 1103 / 023 9275 6277
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