RESTAURANT REVIEW: Sakura 

Fish Out of Water: Can a budding Sakura survive the August heat?

Sakura
Sushi/Japanese
1303 Ashley River Road, West Ashley
(843) 573-8899
Prices: Moderate
Serving: Lunch and Dinner

Back in the spring, the owners of Sakura presented an ambitious plan: take the old Joy Luck China, edged in just north of the wildly successful Fiery Ron's Home Team BBQ in West Ashley, and transform it into a high-end Japanese sushi shop.

When we first visited (on the day they opened) the place looked spectacular, at least if you had ever frequented the austere environs of the former Joy Luck. New wooden Japanese screens and a nod to traditional Japanese art made the place feel cozy and inviting. The fact that the sushi chef just looked at me funny as I bantered across the fish cooler about what to order — until the server informed me that he spoke no English — made things all the more "authentic."

I learned over the course of a long, and quite good, sushi meal that the owners (at least some of them) were from New York, the sushi chef hailed "from a top New York sushi bar," and that "everything we have is coming from New York." Wherever the sushi chef and fish came from, the fish was money, and he knew how to prepare it. His was real nigiri — yep, just like you find in good New York houses. I watched as he formed each piece in the complicated "hand-turned" method that results in perfectly adhered fish and meltingly soft rice that somehow retains its form until the very moment that it hits your tongue. I marveled at his knife skills, the thinness of the cuts, the optimal size of each piece, and its ratio to the perfectly seasoned rice.

This was exciting and impressive — Hanoki of Kurama, way down in Hilton Head, is the only other place in the entire state that I know of with such quality. And I had visions of Sakura becoming such a place, of tender beef tataki with creative ponzu sauces and tempura, flaking as if the batter were mere snow. But Sakura — translated as cherry blossom in Japanese — soon started to wilt and fall from the tree.

The first indication was when I excitedly told some friends about this great new place, about the delicate nigiri, the flashing light cubes that made plates of daikon stacks look like a downtown dance floor — and they disagreed. They knew a more recent version of Sakura, which was not what it used to be.

So I stalked Sakura, visiting regularly and studying the changes, wondering why "New York" sushi couldn't survive in a place like Charleston. Perhaps we don't have enough Yankees (Hilton Head certainly does), or maybe these people from up north just couldn't take the heat, but on my last trip the server informed me that the entire NYC contingent (including my favorite, non-English speaking sushi chef) had packed it up and migrated back north — a move rooted in "creative differences."

These changes followed to the sushi and the menu, and I think reflect the very reason that NYC left the building. In an obvious attempt to recapture the Joy Luck market, Sakura now offers Chinese delivery (even if they won't put the dishes on their sit-down Japanese menu). The once expensive sushi prices seem to have come down, a $3 standard nigiri being more in line with competitors down the road. The size of the sushi went through the roof. Gone are the silky, thin strips of fish that melted in your mouth, replaced by slabs so thick that they are slashed across the top to allow them to bend around the rice, devoid of wasabi, and so unwieldy as to have to be consumed with two hands, lest the fish fall off the rice before you can get it to your mouth. In a time when bigger and cheaper (even if of lower quality) is more popular with the average Joe, Sakura succumbed to the super-sized model.

The once appropriate service has diminished to an excruciatingly slow pace — still warm and amiable, but altogether incompetent. Dishes come out randomly and with inconsistent accoutrements (the last dish I ordered there came so late, they comped it without me asking). Quality is a crapshoot, and they all too often have an empty dining room to show for it.

Some of the great elements survive: the Japino Yellowtail ($14.95), a plateful of spicy ponzu and strips of yellowtail topped with thinly-sliced jalapeño, gets ordered every time. Soft shell crab ($8.50) makes a crispy treat when dipped into its accompanying sauce, and the udon bowls ($9.15-$17.95) will become a winter favorite — because all of this can be delivered to your front door. Tempura dishes crackle with a much-too-thick crust, but the shumai ($5.95) are OK, and the hibachi entrées ($8.95–$17.95) will fill a hungry stomach.

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Only the sushi really lacks at Sakura, which is sort of fatal for a sushi bar — but one can't realistically expect a place in an aging West Ashley strip mall to become an ultra-authentic omakase bar, post-modern noodle shop, or ultra-traditional tea house (something that they have been criticized for by others). The skill that made the first sushi offerings so great somehow flew the coop, and we are left with a wilted flower, still worthy of a trip, but in its desire (and downright survivalist need) to please the natives, Sakura looks more and more like the rest of the crowd rolling fish around town.

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