In describing “food porn,” The New Yorker once wrote, “The point is to get very close to what you are filming, so close that you can see an ingredient’s “pores” which then triggers some kind of Neanderthal reflex. If you’re flicking from channel to channel and come upon food that has been shot in this way, you will be hardwired as a human being to stop, look, and bring it back to your cave.”
Madison Avenue, which is virtually synonymous with advertising, recognizes the impact food porn has on the American consumer. That’s why we’re bombarded with television commercials and magazine ads depicting spectacular displays of visually stimulating, sleek and sexy, glorious deliciousness–food not only as edible art, but as a medium that elicits a carnal response.
Perhaps no modern medium utilizes food porn more effectively than the Food Network whose programming seems tailored to arouse a salivatory response and a lascivious desire to eat. Its veritable pantheon of celebrity chefs recognizes that the appeal to viewers (who obviously can’t smell or taste their creations) is in the way food looks on a plate–its colors, symmetry and design patterns.
Perhaps the most visually appealing moment on any Food Network program occurred during a 2005 Iron Chef battle between challenger Michael Symon and Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto. In one of the most memorable moments in the show’s history, Morimoto created a complex sushi roll resembling an ornate stained glass window that incorporated asparagus, the secret ingredient for the evening.
The roll was so geometric, so visually stunning and beautiful that rather than wanting to attack it lustily, the judges remained agape at its beauty. Judge Alex Guarnaschelli commented, “that stained glass window could have been a family crest from somewhere in the 14th Century in Japan. Like, “this is my stamp, this is who I am.” Morimoto managed to transcend food porn and elevate an item of beautiful food back to the realm of edible art.
Many Asian cultures, especially the Japanese, have a different attitude toward food than what Madison Avenue tries to convey. It’s an attitude of appreciation for meals prepared with care, presented beautifully and consumed in moderate portions. Contrast that with what has become an American obsession for food meant to appear almost sexy on the plate served in profligate portions.
In Asian restaurants, plating–the presentation of beautifully arranged food–tends to be an art form with plates of various shapes, finishes and colors the canvas on which the edible art is presented. Food also tends to be more “three-dimensional” in that the shape and cut of ingredients and the way they are arranged on a plate is synergistic and symmetrical, not necessarily and completely uniform, but esthetic.
Reviewing the menu at Sakura Sushi & Grill in Albuquerque’s Riverside Plaza on the West side, you’ll certainly get the sense that the restaurant has an appreciation for the art form of plating food on the plate. The menu includes color pictures of every menu item in its appetizer, fresh roll, tempura roll and baked roll sections and select items on the entree, fried rice, noodle, Korean dinner, lunch special and dessert sections.
The pictures depict food that is beautiful with colors that jump out at you with their vibrancy and which seem to hint strongly at freshness of ingredients. The pictures show artful arrangements which suggest great care in the precise and deliberate placement of ingredients on the plate. Whether food porn or edible art, I suppose, is contingent on how hungry you are when ogling that menu.
Sakura Sushi & Grill opened in the summer of 2009, but despite the name, it is not related to Sakura Sushi on Wyoming. The latter has a menu featuring sushi as well as Thai and Laotian entrees while the former focuses primarily on Japanese (mostly sushi) and Korean food. Sakura is a Japanese word meaning “cherry blossoms” which are very important to Japanese culture. The name Sakura is also apparently a very popular name for girls in anime, an abbreviation of Japanese animation.
Situated off Coors Boulevard on Albuquerque’s burgeoning West side, Sakura Sushi & Grill joins Ichiban and Sushi King as reasons West-siders no longer have to cross the Rio Grande to find good sushi. It was recommended to me by Barbara Trembath, one of my personal E.F. Huttons (when she speaks, I listen) when it comes to great food in Albuquerque, Boston and San Francisco. Barbara raves about the freshness of Sakura’s sushi and sashimi and the chef’s prowess in selecting great fish.
Sakura’s storefront is unremarkable, just one of many nondescript shops ensconced in the sprawling Riverside Plaza, a vast assemblage of professional offices, boutique shops and restaurants. Step into the restaurant, however, and the restaurant is anything but plain. Its cynosure is the sushi bar backdropped by a vibrant red wall festooned by framed art. A small pergola sans climbing plants provides yet another visually appealing point of focus while you dine.
The menu is segmented into several sections with glossy photographs of entrees and appetizers accompanied by vivid descriptions detailing the ingredients of each. Some entrees, such as the Korean dinners, are served with steamed rice, miso soup and salad while others,such as the Noodle dishes are served sans rice (most restaurants will not serve two starches together). The “Entrees” section of the menu features several Teriyaki dishes (salmon, chicken, shrimp, beef, seafood and vegetable) as well as traditional Japanese dishes such as pork katsu and grilled unagi.
Four fried rice dishes–beef, shrimp, chicken and vegetable–are available as main entrees. One entire page on the menu is dedicated to sushi and sashimi dinners as well as donburi dishes which might best be described as sushi in a bowl. Three sizes of “love boats” are available in which sushi and sashimi are decorative shipmates on a unique boat-like serving vessel. Lower priced lunch specials take up an entire page on the menu.
Sushi occupies the largest part of the menu and Sakura offers it in various forms: baked rolls, vegetable rolls, house rolls, tempura rolls and fresh rolls. An entire page lists Sakura’s salads, only one of which is of the boring garden variety. These salads showcase fresh fish: tuna tataki, spicy tuna, salmon, sashimi, albacore and seafood. The appetizers are inventive sights to behold.
Sakura’s miso soup is fairly standard, at least in the the way in which it is prepared in Japanese restaurants throughout America. Tragically that means miso soup has become the bouillon cube of Asian soups, made by dissolving miso paste into a stock (usually vegetable). Very few restaurants actually use the traditional Japanese dashi stock. Served steaming hot, it is nonetheless a comforting soup that diners have come to expect with sushi.
The salad is fairly nondescript–a brimming bowlful of iceberg lettuce with a parsimonious sprinkling of a peanut and ginger based salad dressing. It’s served cold and is good, but hardly memorable. If you want salad, go for one of the seafood salads; those you’ll remember.
While such de rigueur appetizers as edamame (fresh green baby soybeans in a pod) are available on the menu, it’s intriguingly named starters such as the “Heart Attack” which savvy diners will order, particularly if you appreciate a little piquancy with your meals. The Heart Attack starts off with a large jalapeno, the cavity of which is stuffed with cream cheese and spicy tuna, all of which are deep-fried then topped with masago (small orange fish eggs) and a spicy house roll. This is a terrific way to start a meal at Sakura. It’s not so piquant that you’ll need a fire-extinguisher for your mouth, but it will get your attention.
Donburi is a general Japanese term for “bowl,” however, the term also refers to a bowl of cooked rice with some other food served on top. Some donburi dishes, unagi or tuna for example, might remind you of eating sushi in a bowl which is essentially what you’re doing. In Japan, donburi is considered a traditional fast food offering though many Americans aren’t adept enough at chopsticks to consume it quickly.
Sakura’s donburi entrees exemplify Japanese plating in its most artistic form. Steamed rice at the bottom of the bowl form a bed upon which other ingredients are decoratively laid. Unagi (Japanese freshwater eels) is a delicious option. unagi is said to have stamina-giving properties. Containing 100 times more vitamin A than other fish, unagi is believed to heighten men’s sexual drive. Japanese wives would prepare unagi for dinner to suggest to their husbands that they want an intimate night.
In addition to being very good for you, it is very good to eat, perhaps in large part due to the “unagi sauce” generously applied. Real unagi sauce is made from a reduction of eel bone broth, soy sauce, rice wine and sugar, imparting sweet qualities which complement the eel very well. The texture of unagi is much like that of any soft fish and like fresh fish, it does not have a “fishy” taste, especially when unagi sauce is slathered on.
Korean food aficionados will be thrilled to find many of the familiar Korean standards: bulgogi, bulkalbi and bimimbap, for example. Bulgogi, the national dish of Korea sometimes referred to as Korean barbecue, is a harmonious marriage of sweet, savory and spicy tastes presented on a sizzling hibachi. It is the perfect entree with which to introduce diners to Korean food. They will quickly fall in love with the thin strips of lean beef marinated in fresh garlic and soy sauce then stir-fried nearly to the point of caramelization with yellow and white onions and carrots.
My friend and frequent dining companion Bill Resnik, a far better cook than many working in the trade, usually orders bulgogi if for no other reason to compare it to the bulgogi he makes at home. Invariably, restaurant served bulgogi falls short of his rendition. That was the case at Sakura because the meat was not as tender as the choice meat he uses. Indeed, the meat did have more sinew than great bulgogi should have.
Sushi is the name on the marquee and what Barbara had assured me was of incomparable freshness. Not only is it as fresh as you can get it in landlocked Albuquerque, it is plated magnificently–far better than my pedestrian camera skills can depict. As is the case with many diners (and a common way to order in Chinese restaurants of old) we opted for one from column A, one from column B and one from column C. In this case, one tempura roll, one baked roll and one fresh roll.
The tempura roll was a spicy tuna tempura roll with spicy tuna inside then deep-fried in a tempura batter and topped with eel (unagi) sauce, spicy mayo and smelt eggs. The plating is somewhat like a kaleidoscope, a cacophony of vibrant colors in a beautiful design on a triangle shaped plate. Fortunately it’s not too good to eat, because this is a very good maki (rolled) roll. As we were to discover with other rolls, the vinegared rice is perfectly formed and prepared (not necessarily an easy thing to do). The spicy tuna lives up to its name with enough piquancy to get your attention even without help from the wasabi and spicy mayo.
By virtue of its name, you might also expect the 911 roll to require a mouth lined with asbestos just to eat. Then there’s the ingredients with which it’s constructed–spicy tuna with avocado on top, chili oil, red pepper and sweet dressing. That’s akin to pouring gasoline on a fire. It’s been my experience that with few exceptions, sushi rolls usually don’t achieve the descriptive level of heat touted on the menu without generous wasabi baths and that’s the case with the 911 roll. Instead, focus on the complementary melding of flavors, just how well they all go together. This is a delicious roll.
The Volcano roll also hints at fiery qualities:krab, cucumber and baked salmon inside, spicy tuna on the outside with spicy mayo sauce. The Volcano roll comes from the “baked sushi” section of the menu. It arrives on your table inside a foil wrapping and warm to the tongue. One of the dictates of sushi protocol is to get it all in with one bite, slowly savoring the concordance of ingredients. The sheer size of the Volcano roll makes this a tough proposition. It is an enormous roll, cut thick and brimming with ingredients. Fortunately it’s also brimming with flavor.
Freshness isn’t exclusive to the sushi rolls. Sashimi dinners, which come in three price points, showcase fresh fish. The least expensive sashimi dinner features white tuna, red tuna, red snapper and salmon, all of which have the hue and aroma of healthy freshness. There’s a lot of purity in sashimi where there’s nothing else between you and the fish, but wasabi and soy sauce should you choose to use it.
Sakura subscribes to a time-honored post-meal tradition by providing all guests a non-alcoholic digestif in the form of a Korean tea. The tea serves two purposes–to aid in digestion and as a palate cleanser. It’s served at room temperature and includes ginger, cinnamon and sugar with the surprising addition of pinons floating atop the the liquid. Aside from its healthful qualities, it’s a delicious way to end a meal.
Sakura Sushi & Grill
6241 Riverside Plaza Lane, NW Suite C-1
Albuquerque, New Mexico
1st VISIT: 2 February 2010
LATEST VISIT: 10 April 2010
# OF VISITS: 2
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Bulgogi, Unaki, Dessert Tea, Sashimi, Sushi