Japanese cuisine, for me and many others who relish in it, is about much more than sweet teriyaki flavors, spicy wasabi and delicately wrapped sushi. We may come for the flavors, but we come back for the experience. The uniqueness of teppanyaki cuisine is found in the shared experience between the chef and his guests, as they savor not only the meal but also the opportunity to engage in its preparation. Talented teppanyaki chefs have the chance to flaunt their culinary skills, along with their showmanship as they entertain diners from start to finish. It was in this convivial spirit that I chose Sakura Teppanyaki & Sushi in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, located at 730 W. Diversey, for a Saturday evening dinner.
We arrived just in time to take the last two remaining seats at a full table surrounding one of the teppanyaki grills. Sakura’s atmosphere is striking — modern, violet lighting and elegant seating create a refined environment, complete with traditional Japanese details. The walls are adorned with intricately beautiful Japanese murals, and a full-service bar sits beside the sizeable sushi bar in the back of the room, giving the room an “old-meets-new” vibe.
We ordered the yellow tail sashimi and the New York rolls, made with crunchy tempura shrimp, avocado and a zesty sauce, from a vast array of appetizer options. While we waited for our starters, we were served a simple salad and flavorful miso soup. While we made small talk with our neighbors, the chef arrived, greeted us and began the show with a few basic knife tricks and, of course, the eruption of fire to heat up the grill.
As the iron began to hiss and the inviting aroma of stir-fried vegetables filled the air, we sampled our appetizers — fresh, tasty, handsomely presented and filling. One of our fellow diners had ordered an alluring assortment of sushi in lieu of teppanyaki, and we wished we had followed suit. My shrimp teppanyaki, rather bland and dry, was served with a large helping of seasoned fried rice and vegetables, and I found myself coming back to the spicy New York rolls throughout the meal.
The succulent steak my husband ordered fared slightly better than the shrimp, but the sushi remained, for both of us, the highlight of the meal. The chef’s mediocre display, usually an integral and invigorating part of a teppanyaki dining experience, was rather impersonal and left us feeling distant and, unfortunately, uninspired. Overall, I’d give the meal a “1/4 plate” rating.
If I were to return to Sakura, I would opt for a reservation on the other side of the restaurant and try out more hand-rolled signature maki from the extensive sushi menu. Sakura specialties include the Crazy Rolls — salmon, tuna and white fish wrapped with avocado and deep-fried with homemade spicy unagi sauce — and the Snow White maki — spicy white tuna and avocado topped with seared super white tuna. Diners can also choose dishes from the Japanese kitchen, such as the deep-fried tempura dinner with your choice of vegetables, shrimp, scallops or seafood. Sakura also offers carry-out and delivery service at reasonable prices, which is another great option for those who live in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. For reservations or more information, visit their web site at http://www.sakura-teppanyaki.com.