It's important never to judge a restaurant — particularly a new restaurant — on a first impression. Why? One reason is that the experience one night can be completely different a few nights later. That was definitely the case at the expensively mounted Sakura Asian Bistro & Sushi Bar in Lee's Summit.
It's a beautiful restaurant, although some of the more eccentric decorative touches — the thicket of fake bamboo crawling with plush toy pandas, unexpected curtains of plastic beads (reminiscent of a 1950s movie whorehouse) — add a brazenly trashy note that tarnishes the sheen of the granite-topped tables, the mosaic murals and the expensive upholstery. But this blend of the glamorous and the absurd is one of the reasons that I like Sakura so much. It's so out there that little irritations, such as inconsistent service and a couple of real clinker dishes, are easy to forget.
What wasn't forgettable was the difference between dining at Sakura on a busy Friday night and on a more mellow Monday. True, Sakura has been open for only a couple of months, and the owners are still working out myriad kinks in the kitchen and dining room. (They've already crossed off the handful of Thai dishes on the dinner menu.) Their concept was ambitious from the beginning. In addition to the elaborate sushi menu and the now-deleted Thai dishes, the Sakura menu offers three Japanese noodle bowls, an array of fried tempura and teriyaki dishes, and traditional Chinese-American fare such as General Tso's chicken and a Happy Family platter.
There's something for almost everyone at Sakura. The name, according to one waitress, means "the blossoms of a cherry tree," although the odd printing of the word on the menu looks as if it says sakuza. My friend Truman wishes that the restaurant was called yakuza, the name for organized-crime syndicates in Japan.
"This place would make a great setting for an action film," he said. "Can't you imagine a gunfight through that spray of artificial bamboo, sending toy panda bears flying everywhere?"
I couldn't imagine that at all because the restaurant was packed with families, young couples, quite a few sushi-eating teenage girls, and two chubby young women who seemed mortified at having to spend another Friday night with each other instead of being on real dates.
"Does that remind you of you at that age?" I whispered to Carol Ann.
Without looking up from her heavy, leatherette-bound menu, Carol Ann said, "No. I always had dates on Friday night."
And Sakura is a good date restaurant: Romantic elevator music plays on the sound system (including "Theme From Love Story"), and the starters are generous and easy to share. We enjoyed delicious squares of fried tofu and light, crispy spring rolls (meatless, it turned out). Iceberg-lettuce salads were doused in a kicky ginger dressing the color of Velveeta — that put me off at first, but what the hell, it tasted fine. Less fine was our server, an attractive young woman who had a shaky knowledge of the menu and was easily flustered. When we had a question about an item, she happily ran to the kitchen to find out the answer, but if she hadn't told us otherwise, we would have guessed it was her first night on the floor.
And our dinners were disappointing. Truman thought his Two Flavor Shrimp didn't have any flavor, much less two. "It's a bunch of tiny shrimp, each embedded in 2 pounds of tempura with two boring sauces," he sniffed. Marie loved the name of her dish — Seven Stars Around the Moon. Many of Sakura's dishes are decorated in the same eclectic style as the dining room, and this one came adorned with a bird cleverly carved from a carrot. Unfortunately, that was more impressive than the jumble of sautéed beef, shrimp, scallops, lobster and vegetables in a slick brown sauce. Carol Ann ordered Akita Snapper, which came slathered in a hot chili-lime miso sauce; it would have been excellent if the fish hadn't been fried to a fare-thee-well.