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Customers at Sakura find fresh fish, good feng shui

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By Pam Starr
Sunday, June 21, 2009

Sakura Teppanyaki & Sushi restaurant in Squirrel Hill is a sushi lover's dream come true.

With 23 kinds of Nigiri sushi, and 30 varieties of Maki (roll) sushi, customers can find something they like.

"We are known for our sushi," says Fengping Geng, 44, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Feng Gao, 47. "We have very good sushi. Our fish comes from Pittsburgh Seafood and True World, and is flown in from all over."

The key to excellent sushi, she says, is freshness.

"The fish has to be fresh -- that's most important," Geng says. "You also have to use Japanese rice. It's stickier and chewier than long-grain rice. Japanese rice has to be used (for sushi), or the ingredients won't stick together."

Sushi-making is an art, and Sakura has one of the finest sushi chefs anywhere, according to Geng. Mike Lin is a native of Taiwan and has been making sushi for more than 25 years. It's breathtaking to watch him slice fresh salmon paper-thin, or expertly cut a maki roll to look like a flower. Sakura means "cherry blossom" in Japanese and is Japan's national flower.

"I have my own sushi restaurant in Taiwan," says Lin, 46. "And I worked in Japan as a sushi chef."

Sakura opened nearly two years ago on Forbes Avenue. It instantly became a hit with college students and Squirrel Hill residents, although Geng says their customers come from all over the area.

Fengping Geng and Feng Gao came from the northwest region of China, Ningxia, 12 years ago. They worked in various Japanese and Chinese restaurants since, never losing sight of their goal -- to open their own restaurant.

The couple made sure the restaurant had good feng shui when they opened. Feng shui is an ancient Chinese technique to help balance the energies of a space. In China, Geng says, the number eight is considered lucky. That's why there are 88 seats in the restaurant, the phone number ends in 88, and the restaurant is at 5882 Forbes Ave.

"This location used to be a Chinese restaurant," she says. "Eight is a lucky number, especially for businesses."

The restaurant serves hibachi entrees for those not adventurous enough to try sushi. The hibachi dishes are simple: cooked chicken, steak, filet mignon, scallops, lobster, or shrimp with vegetables and rice.

The Nigiri sushi consists of fresh fish such as white tuna, albacore, flying fish egg, flounder, eel, octopus, red snapper, salmon, scallops, sea urchin and squid.

"Nigiri sushi means the use of the hand to make the rice ball, with the fresh fish on top," Geng says. "It's not rolled up in seaweed."

Maki, or roll, sushi has the fresh fish or vegetables in the middle of the rice, and rolled up with seaweed sheets. Sakura's best-selling maki is the Godzilla roll, Geng says.

"It's spicy tuna inside, and it's deep-fried. It's delicious."

Avocado Roll

Sakura co-owner Fengping Geng chose to share the popular Avocado Roll.

"This is basic sushi --people can make this easier at home," she says. "It's also vegetarian."

All of these ingredients can be found in Asian markets in the Strip District or Asian specialty aisles of some supermarkets.

For the sushi rice:

• 1 cup Japanese rice

• 1 18 cups water

For the sushi rice sauce:

14 cup Japanese vinegar

• 4 teaspoons granulated sugar

12 teaspoon salt

For the Avocado Roll:

• Bamboo sheet, for easier rolling

• Black seaweed sheets

• Sesame seeds

• Avocado, thinly sliced lengthwise

• Pickled ginger

• Soy sauce

• Wasabi

To make the sushi rice: Combine the rice with water and, using a rice cooker, cook for 40 minutes. If you don't have a rice cooker, use a pan and bring the rice and water to a boil, then turn the heat to low and cook for 40 minutes.

While the rice is cooking, combine, in a separate bowl, the sushi rice sauce ingredients.

When the rice is finished cooking, remove from the stove, place in a bowl and combine with the sauce.

To make the Avocado Roll:

Take one sheet of black seaweed and place on bamboo sheet. Cover the seaweed with a layer of sushi rice.

Sprinkle sesame seeds over the rice.

Cut a slice of avocado lengthwise and about the size of an index finger in width.

Lay an avocado slice lengthwise on the rice, to one side. Roll up the seaweed around the ingredients. Cut into 6 slices.

Serve with soy sauce, pickled ginger and wasabi.

Traditionally, the wasabi should be mixed with the soy sauce and the sushi dipped into it. The ginger is supposed to be eaten after the sushi, to cleanse the palate.

Additional Information:

Sakura Teppanyaki & Sushi Restaurant

Cuisine: Japanese and Chinese

Hours : For lunch: 11-2:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. For dinner: 4:30-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 4:30-11 p.m. Fridays, 1-11 p.m. Saturdays, 1-9 p.m. Sundays

Entree price range : $14.95-$36.95. Sushi ranges from $4.50-$14.95.

Notes : Daily lunch and dinner specials. More than 20 kinds of sake and many brands of Japanese beer are available. Major credit cards accepted. Handicapped-accessible.

Address : 5882 Forbes Ave., Squirrel Hill

Details : 412-422-7188 or Web site

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