219 E. Matilija St., Ojai
There are many outstanding ancient Asian proverbs, from Confucius all the way down to fortune cookie philosophy (even if the latter was conceptualized in San Francisco). Two of my favorites happen to hail from Japanese culture; “A fish gets bigger when it swims away” and “Never order sushi in the desert.” OK, that second one I made up, but it sticks all the same. That is, unless you happen to wander in to Ojai’s little Ginsu slice of Okinawa known as Sakura, a first-rate sushi and teppanyaki haven.
Tucked away just behind the main drag on East Matilija Street, this cozy habitat is a balanced dichotomy of traditional and new school. The menu features a bevy of the usual suspects: tempura, edamame and most people’s “first,” the ever-nostalgic California roll. As comfortingly delicious as these items are, when I stroll into a sushi joint it’s with a lust to venture deeper in to the folds of fusion flavor, and if you are an adventurous diner like me then Sakura has us all covered.
As I bellied up to the bar, a prime location for food gazing and service, the first stop on the menu happened to be the last; and to quote one of my favorite spy characters from the ’90s, “Sake to me baby, yeah!” I am an advocate for most of the varieties, but the mood felt right for unfiltered nigori. Adding a Sapporo pint to the festivities as well, it was now time to scout the specials, which are consistently original and phenomenal.
Spotting the salmon collar (what I like to call the “ribs” of the fish), my tummy tickled at the thought of this relatively uncommon offering. Roasted and finished with a miso glaze, this delicacy is an ideal way to kick-start the palate, bringing a rich and buttery flavor to the taste buds. I paired this with an order of my guilty pleasure favorite, steamed AND fried gyoza. After these were joyously consumed it was time for the headliners.
Sushi is meant to be an experience and not just an on-the-go endeavor. That’s why it usually takes longer to arrive; the master chefs are not just throwing a chunk of meat in the pan and flipping it. They take the careful time to respect the art of plate presentation, and this is especially true of Sakura’s fantastical rolls and sashimi. I chose to start with the chef’s recommendation of yellowtail sashimi, spicy albacore miso roll and the aptly named Ojai roll. The first offering was the yellowtail and it was divine, so fresh that I could detect a hint of saltwater through the light drizzle of soy sauce and dollop of wasabi. A near-transparent slice of pickled ginger to clear the palate and it was on to the next. The spicy albacore miso roll was simple yet complex in flavor amalgamation, boasting the decadent richness of the sweet albacore crossed with the salt and spice from the unique miso sauce. The third featured item, the Ojai roll, was a flavor melee of the best kind as tuna, salmon, halibut and avocado shared the quaint blanket of rice in a flash-fried frenzy. Several homemade sauces drizzled over the top made each piece pop with personality.
Though the end result of the adventure was a belly full of content capacity, there was one secret dessert item left that was the end-all, tempura cheesecake. And yes, it’s as good as it sounds.
For those who are more turf than surf, Sakura offers a classic teppanyaki station, complete with Benihana-esque showmanship. An array of traditional Japanese udon noodle bowls are available as well for those chilly nights when only soup will suffice.
So pick up some chopsticks, break them in half and try not to leave most of the deliciousness in the soy sauce bowl, I promise your visit to Sakura to be a truly effusive experience.