A week ago, my sister posted this absolutely stunning image of the cherry blossom trees, in full bloom at the International Pacific University in my hometown of Palmerston North, New Zealand.
The annual Sakura Festival is one of the most anticipated events on the calendars of the Japanese migrant community of New Zealand. Being Down Under, the cherry blossoms come to bloom there in early September, but in Japan it takes place between March and May.
Sakura is Japanese for ‘cherry blossom’, and it is quite a coincidence that a week later, I find myself in a Japanese restaurant by the same name.
Located in the very central Crowne Plaza Hotel on Sheikh Zayed Road, Sakura takes the Japanese culinary experience to another level with its dedicated Chashitsu room, an interactive sushi-making counter and a very fired-up lineup of authentic Teppanyaki barbecues, cooked and served right at the table with a great deal of pomp and pizzazz.
I was invited to experience the magic of Sakura by the Kitchens of Dubai, and was very excited to see what we had in store. The last time I dined with them, we had the pleasure of entering the kitchens of Chamas and got some in-depth knowledge on prime cuts of beef. This time round, I was hoping to get a better glimpse of Japanese culinary culture.
The restaurant interiors are bright and inviting, with ample natural lighting flooding in. I really like the traditional touches, all very Japanese yet not pretentiously so.
We settled into our tables, welcome drinks in hand, but before long we were being ushered in the Chashitsu room! Chashitsu is Japanese for ‘tea room’, and in Japan, tea drinking is a mini ceremony in itself.
A chashitsu (茶室, literally “tea rooms”) in Japanese tradition is an architectural space designed to be used for tea ceremony (chanoyu) gatherings. – Wikipedia.
For this auspicious tea ceremony, we were required to remove our shoes and slip into the soft cloth-like bedroom slippers that are usually found in hotel rooms. The Chashitsu room features a floor table, with the bottom having enough space to allow guest to sit as they would at a normal table. This space has a zen-like ambiance; and with soft slippers and whispered tones, you can almost mistaken yourself for being at a spa!
The tea expert demonstrated the traditional way of making Japanese Matcha Green Tea. If you have been following my blog, you already know how obsessed I am with this miraculously bright green powdered concoction (read all about Matcha in my previous post by clicking here). However, while I was just stirring it into my boiling water, or adding it to my blender for cold smoothies, in Japan they have an artsy little bamboo set dedicated to perfecting the art of making Matcha.
First, a small quantity of Matcha is taken from the tin with a special little spoon that looks like an elegant popsicle stick. The Matcha is then mixed with a very small quantity of hot water. A special brush is used to ensure the drink will not have any residue particles of tea. More water is added, and this is whisked with what looks like a mini broom.
The set looks so authentically Japanese! I really need to get myself one… if only I had a Chashitsu room in the house to go with it!
The Matcha has a delightfully earthy taste, and I have acquired a liking for this tea over regular green teas.
We had our hot cups of Matcha with an array of dainty little Japanese Mochi.
Mochi (Japanese: 餅, もち?) is Japanese rice cake made of mochigome, a short-grain japonica glutinous rice. The rice is pounded into paste and molded into the desired shape. In Japan it is traditionally made in a ceremony called mochitsuki. While also eaten year-round, mochi is a traditional food for the Japanese New Year and is commonly sold and eaten during that time. – Wikipedia.
My favorite from the lot were the very artistically molded flower Mochi, stuffed with sweet red bean paste.
After tea, we headed for sushi. Being a huge fan of sushi, it was really interesting to see these being made live, rolled right out of the bamboo sushi mat! The Chef demonstrated the making of Sakura’s two most popular sushi’s; the Lion King and Crispy & Spicy.
The Lion King gets its name owing to its bright salmon mane, and consists of a crab-meat center stuffed with avocado and cucumber, and a torched layer of mildly spicy sauce.
The Crispy & Spicy is an interesting mix of avocado, green onions and a crab-meat center, with a rind of crispy tempura crumbs.
I love raw salmon as much as I love avocado, so I remain divided on which sushi was my favorite. I’d have a plateful of both any time of day!
After the sushi experience, we were in for more theatricals at Sakura’s Teppanyaki section
Teppanyaki (鉄板焼き teppan-yaki?) is a style of Japanese cuisine that uses an iron griddle to cook food. The word teppanyaki is derived from teppan (鉄板), which means iron plate, and yaki (焼き), which means grilled, broiled, or pan-fried. In Japan, teppanyaki refers to dishes cooked using an iron plate, including steak, shrimp, okonomiyaki, yakisoba, and monjayaki. – Wikipedia.
At Sakura, each Teppanyaki table seats a group of 8 and we get a firsthand experience of Japanese grilling with a great deal of drama thrown in. Their Teppanyaki selection includes a wide range of seafood, chicken and my favorite… wagyu striploin.
The Chef juggles knives at freakishly close proximity, and creates interesting caricatures with the food (as I mum, I am always telling my little one not to play with her food. Surely she will be amused with this!).
The Teppanyki experience is a carnivorous feast.I am glad we were also served an assortment of teppan cooked vegetables to lighten the palate.
And what better way to end on an exemplary Japanese experience than with a shot of Sake?
Sake (Japanese: 酒?), also spelled saké (IPA /ˈsɑːkeɪ/ sah-kay or /ˈsɑːki/ sah-kee) in English, is a Japanese rice wine made by fermenting ricethat has been polished to remove the bran. Unlike wine, in which alcohol (ethanol) is produced by fermenting sugar that is naturally present in grapes, sake is produced by a brewing process more like that of beer, where the starch is converted into sugars before being converted to alcohol. – Wikipedia.
The Sake is strong and pungent, and a few sips of this potent drink right after such a gastronomic meal made me want to head home for an afternoon siesta.
A meal at Sakura is no ordinary experience. With a very varied lineup of authentic Japanese cuisines and a strikingly traditional ambiance to boot, Sakura takes its diners on a cultural tour of Japan.
Sakura also happens to be very reasonably priced, and their Izakaya Nights (which run from 6 to 11 pm every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday) start at AED 195 per person.
The Restaurant is located on the 4th floor of the Crowne Plaza hotel, on Sheikh Zayed Road (Dubai). For bookings and more information, give them a ring on 04 4535425.