Past the security checkpoints, the long hallways, and the crowded lobby of Pearl Continental Hotel sits one of the very few consistently great restaurants in Lahore, and even Pakistan. While the meal certainly won’t be economically priced, the freshness of every dish plated, along with the accommodating and attentive service, will all ensure that the effort and cost are worth it.
Since it’s arrival on the Lahore restaurant scene, Sakura has added new items to the menu gradually but regularly. As a result, many great items are often missed out on when one is indulging in old favourites. With any luck, this review will shine a light on food that is overlooked.
[quote]Start with a bowl of edamame[/quote]
This is not a menu that any diner should rush through. Make yourself comfortable, and order a little bit at a time; savour each item. Start with a bowl of edamame, steamed and salted for a more light start, or the garlic and chili garnished variety for a more bold introduction. The little known Sushi Canapés make a fine appetizer too, fresh crab or salmon sashimi atop a crispy base, with caviar garnish, a tantalizing preview of the smorgasbord of seafood that should surely follow. The Salmon Tetaki’s fresh flavors are a subtle combination of soya sauce, ginger and spring onions, and will further whets one’s appetite, while also cleansing the palate.
[quote]There’s the Gomoko Salad, better known to old customers as the formerly off-menu Hameed Haroon Salad[/quote]
Then of course there’s the Gomoko Salad, better known to old customers as the formerly off-menu Hameed Haroon Salad, reportedly named after the Karachi native who helped develop this item. The coolness of crispy greens and fresh raw seafood along with pickled vegetables contrasts interestingly with a bold wasabi flavoured dressing, a dish that is deceptively filling.
When delving finally into the main purpose of visiting Sakura, one should always consult with the helpful sushi chefs, like Chef Radolfo, who along with the wait staff will always provide an honest assessment as to how fresh the seafood fare is. Once it has their okay, start with the Norwegian Salmon Sashimi. It’s a small serving at a considerable cost (Rs.1,050 for three pieces), but what is laid before you will melt in your mouth, coating the tongue with the delectable fat and oils of this impressive fish.
Like with any quality sushi and sashimi, avoid the mistake of dipping liberally into a crude blend of soy sauce, wasabi, and ginger. Respect the fish, don’t adulterate its natural essence, and do as the purists do. A small speck of wasabi added directly to the sashimi or sushi, with one corner of the fish (but never, ever the rice) dipped lightly in soy, followed by the ginger as a palate cleanser before moving on to the next course.
The Crispy California Roll is the most approachable and popular item on the menu, a roll that is particularly good for those who are new to the cuisine. Imitation crab enveloped in rice, topped with crispy fried and crumbled tempura for a pleasing crunch, topped with a sweet and tangy dressing. For those more daring, but also in the mood for something with an almost dessert-like after taste, there’s the Dragon Roll; unagi (eel) with a sweet glaze, rolled in seaweed and rice, topped with fresh avocado, the texture of which pairs wonderfully with the succulence of the unagi.
The rainbow roll is a dish that marries complex flavors in a subtle manner, while also showing the diverse array of seafood offered at Sakura; each individual piece in the roll is topped with a different fish, salmon, tuna, red snapper, atop a roll filled with imitation crab and crunchy cucumber, with a small dollop of spicy Japanese mayonnaise. Each piece deserves individual regard, a moment to truly absorb its components, before moving on.
Another hidden gem on the Sakura menu is the Blue Chili Crab, served in its shell, topped with a spiced rich creamy sauce and caviar. Among the subtleties of raw fish it’s an awakening of the taste buds.
Perhaps the most indulgent menu item, in terms of cost, is the Black Cod Miso. Running close to three thousand rupees, it isn’t something one orders on every visit to an already pricy establishment. However, it’s easy to see why this dish has made its way onto the menus of many well-known Japanese restaurants around the world, most famously at Nobu. Sakura’s version isn’t the understated succulence of Chef Matsuhisa, in fact it’s a rather sharp contrast. Crispy charring adds a smoky flavour to the supple fish, and after the first bite, the dish will be gone before you know it.
Another crowd pleaser often missed out on is the Shrimp Fried Rice, a modest serving with a garlic essence.
From the dessert menu, Sakura’s Luxury Belgian Chocolate Fondant may well be the best in town, otherwise known by names such as puddle cake, or lava cake. While certainly not Japanese fare, it’s a decadent treat that should not be missed. If something tamer is more to your liking, the Banana Tempura with Ice Cream is light and satisfying.
While it is certainly possible to eat a more expensive meal, dinner at Sakura will run the not inconsiderable price of Rs. 2,000-2,500 per person. A lighter lunch is possible within the range of Rs.1,500-1,800, which includes Sushi Bento; lunch sized platters of sushi, sashimi, or even rolls, served with Miso Soup, Steamed Edamame, Seasonal Salad, Sushi Canapé, and Chef’s Dessert.
Sakura remains one of the few fine restaurants of Lahore that can ably handle large parties, regardless of how crowded it is; service rarely, if ever, disappoints. It possesses all of the hallmarks of a great restaurant, and an experience will be further complemented if a diner were to take the time to discuss preferences and menu options with the servers and sushi chefs. It is a costly indulgence, but one of the rare few in this country where the price is justified.
Asad Khawaja is a co-moderator of the Pakistan Food Forum Facebook group. He tweets at @asadmkh