There have been times when I've been convinced that I could happily eat nothing but sushi for the rest of my life.
Ever since a friend helped me get beyond the raw fish thing, my eyes, mouth and stomach have delighted in the strange mix of flavors and textures and the artful appearance of a well prepared plate of sushi. While I've mused with other Paradise City restaurantgoers over the perennial question—how many sushi restaurants does a small city like ours need?—I've also been delighted to have something new to try.
Still, when Sakura opened in the former Hunan Gourmet location on King Street, I'd been apprehensive about the idea of an all-you-can-eat sushi buffet. Even at the tantalizing price of $9.99 a person (prices are higher for dinner and on the weekend), when it comes to serving up delicately prepared raw fish, it seemed a mistake to emphasize quantity over quality.
On a lark last week, though, a colleague and I gave it a try for lunch, and were surprised.
Beyond the small lobby (which, strangely, featured clumps of dried-out moss stuck on a rock wall), we were quickly directed to a window seat in the cavernous restaurant. Along the wall facing the windows, from the front door all the way to the back of the establishment, there was a runway of food for us to traverse. After the hostess took our drink order, we were free to grab a plate and explore.
While Japanese cuisine occupied the largest, most central part of this food marathon, other Asian nations were represented, too. There were the typical beef, chicken and vegetable Chinese dishes, along with dumplings and plenty of noodles. A few Thai soups and dishes were also available. At the finish line, there was a fresh fruit and salad bar as well as a do-it-yourself soft-serve.
In general, the food is better than you might expect, given the cafeteria-like presentation. The soups and hot dishes were tasty and seemed fresh. The sushi was satisfying and certainly plentiful, and there was a team of chefs busily making certain it stayed that way.
Beyond the freedom to stuff myself silly for a fixed price, the chief attraction to Sakura's setup, I found, was the ability to sample sushi I might not have ordered from a menu. There's a lot of variety and a good balance between spicy and ordinary fare. The portions were a little smaller than I was used to, but given that I could take as much as I wanted, this was hardly an issue.
The chief distractions were the presentation and decor. The plates, though large, were also plastic, as was the "glass" my drink was served in. While I'd always thought the Hunan's decoration was a little too Disney-like for my tastes, stripped of the faux Ming vases and elaborate murals, the dining room felt a little spare. A lot of the chairs were held together with duct tape, and the few giant plastic aquatic beasts mounted on the walls reminded me less of the sea than of the fact that I was eating on the cheap.
Even though I was enjoying myself and went back to refill my plate several times, I couldn't help wondering who I'd ever bring there as a guest.
More than those with epicurean tastes, the bargain prices seemed to attract a lot of hungry bargain hunters, like myself. There were a number of single parents with their kids. A row of retired men sat by themselves, reading their newspapers and making regular return trips to the buffet. Outside, the parking lot was crowded with the trucks of electricians, house painters and plumbers, all stopping off for a lunch break that would certainly fill them up.
When I returned for a second visit later in the week, I ate my meal alone while staring at the broad, brawny back of a biker whose shirt read in all caps, "Fuckin' Awesome." If you're looking for a pile of decent Asian food for a fair price, it's a sentiment you're likely to share eating at Sakura.