There is a new player in the restaurant scene in historic downtown Urbana. Located at 132 W Main Street across the street from Crane Alley and next to Rick’s Bakery is Sakura Japanese Cuisine. It takes a lot of confidence and moxie to open a business, and ten times that to open a restaurant. Add in what we hope to be the tail end of a pandemic, and uncertainty always looms if it will succeed.
When I first learned about Sakura in 2021, I truly wondered if it would happen. I am happy to see that not only did they open, but they are also putting out quality food and great service to large crowds. When we arrived around 5:15 in the evening, the place was about half full. When we left, it was at capacity with a wait. It was truly great to see.
I love trying a brand-new place for the first time. To make sure I went in with no preconceived ideas, I made sure to steer clear of any online reviews and told my friends who already visited to not give me any spoiler alerts.
What we found was a unique restaurant that prides itself on tasty food and fabulous presentations.
We started with some green tea ($2) as we perused the menu. How can you go wrong with this wonderful Japanese staple? I absolutely adore hot green tea, and Sakura’s was wonderful. Served in a wonderfully designed cup, it was a great way to start my meal. I realize warmer weather will be soon upon us, but I still recommend giving this tea a try.
For our appetizer, we shared an Urbana roll ($16) made of raw tuna, salmon, and white escolar, deep fried and topped with spicy mayo and eel sauce. Admittedly, I ordered this solely because of the name. How can we be in historic downtown Urbana and not order the Urbana roll? We were sure glad we did.
When I saw deep fried, I thought it was their way of saying the roll was crunchy on the outside i.e. “deep fried ice cream.” It was evident I was wrong when I took my first bite. The outer crust was warm because this roll was legit deep fried. I have never had a sushi roll have such a great contrast of textures and temperatures. The inside was still wonderfully high quality chilled raw seafood. This roll will be my go-to starter on any future visit of which I predict to be frequent.
My wife ordered teriyaki salmon ($17) for her entrée. The teriyaki dish had charbroiled salmon with a chef-made teriyaki sauce with a side of broccoli and rice. The presentation of this salmon was quite stunning. There was a lovely teriyaki sauce with sesame seeds on the salmon, and it was served over mixed greens and alongside mini cabbage salad, orange wedges, and broccoli. The salmon was expertly cooked: perfectly flaky. The chef-made teriyaki sauce had a great flavor. Not to be shown up by the wonderful sauce, the charbroiling of the salmon really elevated this dish and its flavor profile.
My entrée was tempura udon ramen ($15). It included squash, zucchini, sweet potato, asparagus, broccoli, and shrimp tempura in fish broth. I love, love, love ramen. Even the cheap instant ramen that sustained me from 1984-1988 at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale (along with Jolt Cola and Sterling Beer long neck returnable bottles). While I do enjoy reminiscing about my bright college days, I’m glad to say I have graduated to legit ramen.
This ramen was gorgeously presented with a dark rich broth and generous amounts of vegetables and noodles. On the side were deliciously prepared broccoli, zucchini, and shrimp tempura. The fish broth alone was absolutely fantastic and rich. Add the noodles and vegetables, and I had the perfect combination. The tempura vegetables and shrimp were lightly coated so I had both the crunch of the tempura batter and the flavor of the vegetables and shrimp. I dipped most of the tempura bites in the broth, but also enjoyed eating them on their own. Each element was great on its own, which led to an fabulous dish when combining them all.
We treated ourselves to Sayuri sake ($10 for a mini bottle that fills 2 glasses). Sayuri means “little lily” in Japanese. The unfiltered sake was cloudy and creamy, and it had hints of white grape and cherry blossom. This was served chilled and made an excellent match with spicy food because of its mild, understated flavors. Make no mistake, it still had a traditional sake flavor profile, but I really enjoyed trying something different. It was also a bargain at $10 per mini bottle that generously filled two wine glasses.
Our entire experience at Sakura was fabulous. The décor at the Japanese restaurant was traditional yet chic, as were the table settings. It was formal yet comfortable. It has a great vibe and everyone there was enjoying themselves. The service was great, and the pace of the meal was not rushed. It is a great place to take your time and savor a great meal.
There are so many different options Sakura offers, and I cannot wait to go back. As we were walking out the door, I saw a diner’s chicken teriyaki bento box. The bento box looked great — and that is what I will be ordering on my next visit, along with the Urbana sushi roll, of course!
Sakura Japanese Cuisine
132 W Main St
M-Sa 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. + 5 to 10 p.m.
Su 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. + 5 to 9 p.m.