From the outside peering in, Sakura does not look hopeful. This is no indictment of its interior which oozes warmth and authenticity, but its kerb appeal on Albert Road.
As I write this only the first and final letters of its name are stuck above its frontage causing it to modestly pitch itself to passers-by as S - – – – a.
As immediate observations go, this can’t instil confidence in many diners. But they say you should never judge a book by its cover, and so we do not.
With a bit of a schedule to keep to, my companion and I stroll in on a bitterly cold Saturday evening. The night is young and we're ushered to one of the restaurant's many empty tables with a welcoming smile, but this sparsity is only momentary.
Couples, families and groups of friends swiftly pour in claiming cosy booths and the adjacent row of wall-to-wall, black, wooden tables. Evidence, if ever I have seen it, that booking is advisable. Seconds after being seated we're handed menus for both food and drink.
Impressively the former, a hardback, offers a picture of every dish. This is helpful if you are no connoisseur of Japanese cuisine. I’m not.
Two minutes later we’re politely asked if we're ready to order drinks. We're not, but it's better to get the question early than late.
With more time to mull we size up the place. The setting is snug and charming. Shelves on top of the booths and in the windows are adorned with rows of empty bottles of sake, the Japanese rice wine, which bring an attractive uniformity.
Billowing above guests there are rows of colourful bunting, leading to a tiny bar-cum-front desk beautified by a display of cherry blossom – a flower which translates to mean Sakura.
Expecting a revisit from staff in a moment, we get our heads down and each opt for a crisp glass of pinot grigio Sanviglio (£3.60). This is fresh and palatable and tides us over for the hour-and-a-half we are told we have the table for.
By this point our minds are made up on food too – my main is a chicken katsu don.
This delicious bowlful is a hearty halfway-house between its popular curry namesake and a soup, boasting deep fried chicken on a bed of egg and sushi rice with a miso broth in tow. It’s garnished with leek, onion and mushroom – and it’s utterly moreish.
The chicken is sweet – its skin slightly crunchy – and the rice and vegetables are soft and bursting with flavour. The presence of soup rather than sauce leaves me feeling relatively guilt-free, but comfortably full all the same. It’s a steal at £8.50.
Spotting a trend, I enjoyed a side of prawn gyoza soup (£6.20). This is exactly as described. Four prawn gyozas – dumplings, laced with vegetables – in miso.
These are small but mighty, pushing the boundary of just how much flavour can come in a single bite, or two if you’re patient.
A pescatarian, my companion was every bit as pleased with her dinner choices. Two sushi dishes – avocado maki (£3.80) and vegetable maki (£4.80) – with crispy prawn gyozas (£6.20). Intricately-crafted as the trio was, I can’t help but feel she wished she ordered more. That’s no one’s fault but her own!
When we later upped and scarpered we agreed – Sakura was fantastic.
We left having enjoyed an authentic taste of Japan just a short stroll from home – and what more can you ask than for a meal that takes you away?
Sakura’s food is sublime, its staff are polite and the relaxed experience it offers leaves an impression on your palate, not your wallet.
And in addressing my earlier qualms, let me make it very clear – those missing letters are no bad omen.
Ratings and info
Sakura, Albert Road, Southsea
Tel: (023) 9275 6277
(ratings out of five)