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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Up in Flames

From the Food Vault Dept.: The life expectancy of most restaurants is brutally brief. Sakura, a hibachi steakhouse that I reviewed a decade ago, hung on for only a couple of years. It was replaced, early in 2010, by Ala Shanghai, an excellent eatery that continues to persevere.


HIBACHI DINNERS – also known as teppanyake – are a cross-cultural phenomenon, making them about as authentically Japanese as many another ethnic-restaurant mainstay. But if that’s the dinner you’re looking for, you’re probably not worried about authenticity. Let that therefore not be an issue.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
It’s dinner and a show rolled into one, and, goofy as it seems as a concept, it’s no end of fun when the knives flash and the spatula spins. I’m sure you know the way it works. Start with a meat. At Sakura, your choices include chicken ($16), shrimp ($19), two grades of steak ($19 or $21), lobster ($26) and an economical veggie array ($14). Not to mention higher-priced combos ($21 to $36).

You’re sitting, of course, at a large table with a griddle in the middle. Possibly you’re seated with several strangers – it’s a communal kind of meal. A bowl of hot, easygoing miso soup starts you off, bits of tofu and scallion texturizing the broth.

An iceberg salad topped with ginger dressing follows, a dressing my daughter is so nuts about that I’m still trying to replicate it at home.

Then the show begins.

Sakura opened just over three months ago in space formerly occupied by Fannie’s, just east of the Latham circle on Route 7. “There are several Japanese restaurants in Albany,” observes manager Raymond Lee, “but we thought one was needed here.” The place has been charmingly remodeled, with four hibachi tables, several booths and a number of seats at the sushi bar.

And, of course, there’s plenty else on the menu. Sushi, which I sampled on $7 appetizer plate, is fantastically fresh, also available in its many permutations a la carte and as miso soup-enhanced dinners ($15-$21).

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Flaming shrimp (or salmon, $17) is one of the provocatively titled “kitchen specials,” also including avocado chicken ($17), grilled beef kushiyaki ($19), sakura spicy noodles (served with meat or veggies, $12) and more. Teriyaki dinners include the usual meats and range from $11-$21. A selection of noodle soups gives you dinner for as little as $10, and, if you’re a fan of the fryolator, several tempura selections are available.

You can be like my wife, whose avoidance of the deep-fried stuff melts away in the face of these lightly battered, quick-fried morsels, and so it was that she enjoyed a dinner of chicken (what else!) tempura ($13), served with miso soup and a bowl of rice. The trick to this dish is its preparation, which not only is a matter of meat prep and batter but also of oil quality and temperature. All of which were excellent.

Then the cart approached, wheeled by our cheerful hibachi chef. Overture: the (by now) traditional fork and spatula show, a juggling act worthy of the old Ed Sullivan show. Fire was added, culminating in the traditional onion-ring volcano, before the onion was melded into egg-fried rice.

Meat hit the grill next with a ferocious sizzle, a good-sized chunk of beef alongside pale strips of chicken. A flurry of slicing, flipping, tossing, laughing. Shrimp appeared as if from nowhere; an array of sliced vegetables was added, one zucchini strip mysteriously remaining to one side.

Any good server knows that dining out is theater, and it’s no coincidence that actors thrive in the profession. Here the preparation is theater as well, dramatizing what’s essentially a simple cooking technique with energetic flourishes. Peek into a well-run kitchen and you’ll see chefs so adept at a very repetitious job that they amuse themselves by developing flashy moves. Here it’s transferred to the dining room.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
That lone zucchini strip? Our chef deftly sliced them into bite-sized chunks, then launched them, chunk by chunk into our open mouths. Sounds ridiculous, if not downright annoying, yet it made sense as the climax of this crazy show. And it gave me the chance to summon an old, old skill, developed during my teenage-years job as a movie-house usher, when I’d while away the time during bad films by practicing such useless diversions as launching popcorn aloft, kernel by kernel, and catching it in my open maw.

Ideally, the teppanyake show is shared by a tableful of diners. You’re forced to share the space with other parties, becoming a larger and therefore more enthusiastic audience for the show. (Having said which, let me note that I’m too misanthropic to enjoy sharing my table space with anyone. I’m trying to get over that. It hasn’t been successful.)

And, of course, you can dine at more traditional tables, where you might want to try a bento box, that beautiful lacquer-plate presentation of selections like chicken teriyaki, California roll, shrimp tempura and more ($21), beef teriyaki, a spicy tuna roll, shrimp tempura and shumai ($23) and other mixtures.

To finish, if the tempura bug really bites you, there are also deep-fried desserts.

Sakura is a Japanese rose. As this new one blossoms, you can take advantage of a 15 percent-off special that’s promised to run at least through March. They still await a liquor license, but everything else is in place for a highly recommended meal.

Sakura, 468 Troy-Schenectady Rd. (Route 7), Latham, 783-xxxx. Serving lunch Tue-Sat 11-3, dinner Tue-Thu 4:30-10, Fri-Sat 4:30-11, Sun 1-10. AE, D, MC, V.

Metroland Magazine, 15 November 2007

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