What can you say about a Japanese restaurant that sets its tables with paper placemats (of the American presidents, no less), has no website, takes no reservations, scrawls its specials on a dry-erase board and is packed every weekend and often on weeknights?
If the restaurant is Sakura Bana in Ridgewood, you can say it must be doing something right, and you can add that it’s been doing so pretty much non-stop since it opened in 1984. Back then, the floors were covered in tatami mats and customers had to leave their shoes at the door. That custom faded away in the ’90s. In late 2006, Sakura Bana closed to expand into the space next door, doubling its size. The day it reopened in mid-2007, its fans, myself included, stood in line, thrilled to have it back.
The attraction is simple: sushi of exceptional freshness, including hard-to-find varieties. That means uni (sea-urchin roe) so fresh it is served in its shell, tentacles still wriggling. Ken Kunki, the head sushi chef and manager, buys live sea urchin from the northern California coast. “West Coast uni,” he told me in a telephone interview after my visits, “is far superior to East Coast uni. It’s sweeter, yet also brinier and all-around smoother.”
Born and raised in Japan, Kunki used to work at West Coast sushi restaurants until a friend convinced him to come to Ridgewood to take a job at Sakura Bana. He has been running the sushi bar for 20 years now, greeting regulars as they take their seats.
Kunki admitted that he buys two cuts of toro (fatty tuna)—one a bit firmer for his Asian customers (and connoisseurs of whatever ethnicity), the other softer for the newbies. “Average customers,” he said, “don’t like to chew the fish, they like it buttery soft.” He added that if you want what the Asian customers get without asking, just ask—he’ll be glad to oblige.
On all my visits, there were far more Asian customers than American. One night at the sushi bar, I watched Kunki make three items I never saw before. I pointed and said I wanted to try them. One was a yellowtail and tuna roll wrapped in thin slices of banana instead of seaweed and topped with an American-style barbecue sauce. The melding of sweet, salty and spicy, and the textural harmony of fish and banana, was marvelous.
Another stroke of inspiration was thin-sliced scallop tartare speckled with flying-fish roe, bound with a bit of spicy mayonnaise over sushi rice.
The third marvel was snapper sushi, the skin crisped with a brûlée torch and sprinkled with Mongolian sea salt. The salt actually accentuated the sweetness of the snapper. Kunki advised me not to dip it in soy sauce. Good advice. It would have thrown off the balance.
Monkfish liver, rarely seen in Jersey sushi restaurants, makes frequent appearances on the specials board. If it’s there, get it. It is the Japanese answer to foie gras, and it is special. Served slightly warm, mine came in a bowl with dashi broth, a chiffonade of scallions, grated fresh mild radish and a big lemon wedge.
Speaking of specials, many of the menu’s special rolls deserve the appellation. For example, the Peter Roll (spicy scallop tartare, tempura chips and cucumber wrapped in yellowtail and tuna and topped with wasabi-infused flying-fish roe) and the Caribbean Roll (eel and cucumber wrapped in mango and tuna). Also special, in the standout sense, are the house-made wasabi and pickled ginger. Ask for them, otherwise you’ll get the familiar (if perfectly acceptable) commercial kind.
The kitchen is not quite as consistent as the sushi bar. On the OMG! side was agedashi tofu—warm cubes of silken tofu fried in the sheerest coating of clingy potato starch and served in a warm, comforting dashi broth. It was perhaps the best cooked dish I have had in a Japanese restaurant. An appetizer special of squid tempura was astonishingly tender, rivaling the best Italian-style fried calamari.
On the other hand, classic negimayaki—scallions wrapped in beef and broiled—on one visit came out wet inside and dry outside, with little flavor inside or out. Another time, the dish was everything this classic should be—moist, meaty, flavorful. Oyako donburi, a bowl of rice topped with an omelet of chicken, onions, scallions and egg was seriously overcooked and under-seasoned. Tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlet) served with steamed broccoli and carrots was dry.
As for service, on one busy night, the paper wrappers from our hand towels sat on the table right through dessert. We were never offered tea, our water glasses sat empty most of the evening.
Did we care? Not really. We were glad we had a table. There wasn’t an empty seat in the house, and people were standing by the door.Click here to leave a comment
- Cuisine Type:Asian - Japanese
- Price Range:Moderate