A chef uses hot charcoal to prepare kushiyaki at Sakura House Photo by Richard Foss

A chef uses hot charcoal to prepare kushiyaki at Sakura House
Photo by Richard Foss

The seemingly simple art of traditional Japanese barbecue can’t be taken for granted

By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)

I remember when I was taking a friend for his first taste of kushiyaki, the traditional Japanese barbecue, and he thoughtfully mused, “It’s meat and vegetables on a stick, with fire. What could possibly be wrong with that?”

Meat, vegetables and fire are a winning combination the world over, but there’s something about the stick that makes this a fun food — from Hawaiian pupu platters to Greek souvlaki, things served on a skewer put a smile on people’s faces. It’s not a sure-fire recipe, though. When you have very few ingredients, it shows up any flaw in technique.

We saw some of the pluses and minuses of this on a recent visit to Sakura House, which boasts that they serve “sizzling skewers of kushiyaki.” I wondered how this was different from the yakitori that I was familiar with, and looked it up. Kushiyaki means skewer cooking; yakitori is specifically skewered chicken. They’re really the same thing, and the chef standing by his hot charcoal grill in the center of the kitchen does the same job regardless of the name.

Sakura House has been open for 25 years and has a mostly non-Japanese clientele, which made it very odd that our server had a very limited command of English. She also seemed impatient even though the restaurant wasn’t very full, and did not show the warmth and hospitality that we expect in Japanese restaurants. A question about what was in a special was answered only by an assurance that it was good and we should try it, which was reassuring but not helpful. Luckily most of the menu items are straightforward — an array of things on sticks to be grilled over fire — so we didn’t have many questions. We ordered two different seven-item combinations, one heavy on meat and the other on seafood, plus a small bottle of sake and a daily special appetizer of crispy chicken.

The chicken got out hopes up. It had been wrapped with seaweed, dipped in cornstarch, fried, then topped with what may have been pureed Japanese radish. I would have liked it a bit better if the ponzu sauce had been on the side rather than on the plate, so it would have maintained the crisp texture above and below, but this was a minor quibble. The soft-shell crab that arrived immediately afterward was another good omen, nicely cooked with a little flavorful dark soy on the side. Salads with a muted miso dressing and soup are included with all combination meals, and we selected one miso soup and one chicken soup. The miso soup was fine, but the chicken was strangely bland: it was broth with chicken, without so much as a sprig of green onion to add a little flavor. It was a soup base rather than an interesting soup.

Skewers arrived in waves from this point, and it became clear that the spicing is erratic here. Though the pork-wrapped okra and asparagus were good, the chicken wings were extremely salty and the ginger miso beef was chewy and unimpressive. The mushrooms were stuffed with unseasoned mashed potato, which added nothing appealing, and the chicken meatballs known as tsukune were oddly under-seasoned, as these are usually oniony and have a slight citrus undertone. There were good points — the squid with shiso leaf was excellent, the minty herb and moist, tender seafood a perfect match —but there was obviously a problem with consistency.

We had been offered a choice of white rice or what was referred to as seasoned mixed rice, and we both picked the latter. It didn’t arrive with our meal, and we had to remind the server that it was due. We had expected one of the seasonings that involved bonito flakes, sesame seeds and other savory seasonings, so were surprised when she delivered rice with umeboshi, pickled plum. The combination of sweet and salty was not appealing to finish our meal, and we each took only a bite or two. Though we had specifically requested the rice and then didn’t eat it, the server didn’t ask why or offer white rice instead.

Our bill for two, including a $20 bottle of pleasant Hananomai sake, was $95. A particularly refined variant on a worldwide impulse to combine meat, sticks and veggies, Japanese barbecue by any name can be a treat. There aren’t many Westside restaurants that serve this cuisine, but I’m willing to travel a bit to find one that does it better.

Sakura House is open daily except Tuesday, starting at 5:30 p.m. and closing at 9 p.m. Sundays and Mondays, at 9:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, and at 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Beer, wine and sake served. Park in the small lot or on the street.

Sakura House 13362 W. Washington Blvd., Mar Vista (310) 306-7010