Sarah Cotterill enjoys it nice and Japanesey
Tokyo has more Michelin stars than Paris; it’s a culinary destination. Japan’s Cignale Enoteca just landed the top spot on Monocle’s Global Top 50 Restaurants list, serving just eighteen guests at an intimate counter top bar.
I reckon you could fit about eighteen diners inside Senbon Sakura, the two year old Japanese joint on Great George Street. It’s intimate, but not in a Michelin kind of way. More of a ‘sitting in someone’s kitchen’ kind of way. But that’s why it’s great, it feels authentic; the leaping salmon noren curtain at the door (traditional fabric dividers), the paper lanterns, the fact it’s BYOB.
Great George Street has undergone a bit of a silent regeneration, although a stones throw from the Town Hall, it feels green and leafy, full of cafes and what seems like more hairdressers than I’ve got hairs on my head.
It’s hard not to compare Senbon Sakura with Little Tokyo in the city centre. Their staff are in traditional dress too, offering bento boxes, sushi and katsu. Little Tokyo is more formal (they’ve got Koi carp for God’s sake), but you can’t enjoy a warm beer from your bag, drank from a latte glass, and there’s no J-Pop ballads on the radio.
Senbon Sakura translates as ‘a thousand cherry blossom flowers’, which decorate the walls, like those bedroom stickers you used to ask for in the 90’s. The menu is a cardboard weapon, maybe even bigger than A3, and far more extensive than the lunch offering and what’s online. They’re on Just Eat, Uber Eats and Deliveroo, but I’d miss the J-Pop with a delivery. After half an hour of lost silence, only broken by the noodle soup-slurping solo diner next to us, we finally came up with a mix of things to order.
Although the teriyaki chicken salad (£6) - with ‘bushed’ grilled chicken (where’s the bush?) sounded good, we went with some edamame (£3) to nibble on. I don’t really know how to critique a bean, but all I can say is this, it was definitely a bean.
You get a little red and black dish of miso soup with the set meals, nice and savoury, with cubes of floating tofu and spring onion. Then we went seasonal with asparagus tempura (£4) The tips are surprisingly crunchy and fresh, if the batter a little bland.
Spicy pepper squid (£5), also deep fried and sprinkled with chilli powder, comes on top of a bed of scraps. Fun, but hard to pick up with chopsticks. Pumpkin katsu (£4.50) is probably the least unappetising of the lot. Big oval croquettes the colour of Wotsits, soft and comforting, even if the Katsu sauce has a strange unfamiliar tang. The best of the appetisers are vegetable gyoza (£4.30) with skins that are glassy, pistachio hued, and yielding.
Watching the Itamae, who works from the open counter-top, with his sideways cap, and Wrapmaster cling dispenser, it’s clear he’s a nimble sushi don. We probably should have ordered some of the specials; the eel dragon roll (£10), spider roll (£9.50), or spicy tuna love roll (£9.20), but after nearly confusing masago with mango, (one’s fish roe, one’s a fruit), we go classic. Six pieces of avocado maki (£2.80) and six of salmon (£3.20) - on a wooden plinth, with soy and a squirt of wasabi to make your head shake.
I like maki because you can fit them into your mouth whole. We also like the vegan chicken chunk bento (£9) which remarkably has duck skin texturing on the meatless gluten - nice touch. A whole floret of broccoli is always another chopstick fumble, and it’s cute they topped the salad compartment with three sweetcorn kernels, but the grated carrot was a bit dry.
On our way out, the Itamae reveals they’re about to undergo a 2-3 week refurbishment, after which they’ll have a license. He imagines crazy nights with a bottle of Sake per person. I’m imagining neon signs and white leather, and hope Senbon doesn’t change too much. I like the stick on wall art, and the homely feel, a world away from Michelin stars and fine-dining.
Senbon Sakura, 71 Great George St, Leeds LS1 3BR
All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidential and completely independent of any commercial relationship. Venues are rated against the best examples of their type: 1-5: put the kettle on instead, 6-9: Netflix and chill, 10-11: if you're passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: made by God him/herself.
Edamame 7, Miso Soup 7, Asparagus Tempura 8, Spicy Pepper Squid 6, Pumpkin Katsu 6, Vegetable Gyoza 9, Avocado Salmon Maki 9, Vegan Chicken Chunk Teriyaki 8
Impeccable, friendly, not full-on.
As dated as you want an authentic Japanese eatery to be