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DAVID NELSON/ON RESTAURANTS

The Innovative Sakura-bana Serves Up Sushi With a Twist

April 25, 1991|DAVID NELSON

Nouvelle cuisine, as a catch phrase, may be passe, but the concept lives on and seems to be working its odd little changes on more and more traditional cuisines. We will know that it has become thoroughly pervasive when a report comes in that Tibetans are using kiwi slices to garnish their ever-replenished cups of dark tea mixed with salted yak butter.

Sushi has held so central a role in daily dining in Japan that, until recently, prospective sushi cooks were required to serve a tightly supervised apprenticeship of several years before they were deemed capable of preparing these bundles of garnished rice. Tradition emphasized quality ingredients and perfection of presentation, not innovation.

As have so many eateries, the small, crowded and rather engaging Sakura-bana sushi bar and restaurant at the southern end of The Lumberyard in Encinitas has learned that tradition can be augmented. The sushi cooks serve all the usuals--and do them rather nicely--but also assemble a changing selection of specials that run from the daring to the almost bizarre.

Chinese and Western elements have been borrowed at times as ways of updating and internationalizing sushi. The "Chinese dynamite roll" depends on Szechwan-style chili sauce to add potent heat, as does the spicy tuna roll, which transforms the mild, very popular blue tuna ( maguro ) sushi into something that fairly rages in the mouth. This does not seem an unmixed blessing, since the sweet, beautifully refreshing flavor that typifies maguro is completely obscured.

Most of Sakura-bana's imagination seems to have gone into the elaborate rolls, rather than the everyday, garden variety sushi (examples of which include rice with river or sea eel, sweet shrimp, squid, salmon roll and octopus).

The names themselves, which include the Highway 101 and the U.S.A. rolls, tempt and tease, although the ingredients are not too out of the ordinary.

Innovations include the shrimp tempura roll and, for those who like soft-shelled crab, another roll in which the deep-fried legs of this creature stick out like crisp brown flags. The restaurant's namesake sushi, the Sakura roll, includes shredded vegetables and smelt eggs packed around a filling of minced crab dressed with mayonnaise. The flavor of the mayonnaise is unexpected, but it is a good dish.

Sakura-bana emphasizes sushi to a greater degree than many places that bill themselves sushi bars, and testimony to this is provided by the loud and eager crowd that often jams all available seats at the counter.

There is a relatively brief supplementary menu that makes much of combinations of sushi or sashimi (raw fish without the seasoned rice base) in combination with the usual tempuras and teriyakis, beyond which the entree list does not venture.

This supplementary list does offer a better-than-average selection of appetizers, so that you can simulate a typical meal by progressing from cold sushi to hot, savory tidbits.

The shrimp shumai , a close approximation of the dainty Chinese shrimp dumplings of the same name, were indelicate and a little pasty; better to stick to such undeniably Japanese offerings as the shrimp tempura, succulent within their lacy sheaths of crisp but unbrowned batter.

A thoroughly delightful offering, the Sakura noodles, is one of those hybridized preparations that came about when American commercial food products reached Japan in the wake of World War II.

Described by the menu as "potato noodle dressed with special mayonnaise sauce," it shares certain qualities with the dishes invented for Midwestern potluck suppers; an unidentifiable ingredient, familiar and surely from a jar or bottle, gives a cool and soothing flavor.

The starter list also offers agedashi tofu, or deep fried bean curd in a pungent sauce, fried calamari and the savory meat-stuffed dumplings called gyoza .

Sakura-bana

1031 1st St. (in The Lumberyard), Encinitas

Calls: 942-6414

Hours: Lunch Tuesday-Friday, dinner Tuesday-Sunday, closed Monday

Cost: Sushi generally priced $1.80 to $6.50 per order, entrees $6.25 to $11.95.

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