Sakura-ya. Face-to-face with the pioneering leading lady of sushi

- Chefs

A logbook by Sensei Hiroshi Umi.

She gives off the elegant, refined and measured air of an actress with years of performances behind her. Reserved of manner, a lively look in her small, blue eyes, Anna Saura has successfully made reliable headway in the tumultuous restaurant world with her flawless conduct and track record, having spent decades pioneering both Japanese cuisine and other unfamiliar products from my homeland, which seemed the height of exoticism way back in the 1990s.

For Barcelona-born Anna Saura it was a wonderful, tough and succulent era, free of all the empowerment needed today, in which she took the tuna belly by the horns, so to speak, opening a restaurant with a small shop alongside in the heart of the Catalan capital.

“I am a psychologist and educationalist, and that was how I made my professional living for years. I worked at Barcelona Autonomous University, giving classes in evolutionary psychology. And in parallel with my teaching career in the 1990s, I discovered other cuisines on my travels around the world, eating more Asian food than the dishes of my destination itself. I discovered Japan and all its culture through my husband, who is an architect. I read, I researched and really plunged into that world, fascinated by the whole attitude, the customs, the aesthetic, the minimalism in every discipline. All with consistency, where beauty has a function. Nothing exists just for the sake of it. To make sure each mouthful is different and doesn’t become boring, with a new hint and nuance every time. There is a sense of responsibility, professionalism in offering oneself to another. And I found that attention and concentration on others captivating. It is a way of understanding life, of being, with great spirituality,” Saura explains, with her calm demeanour.

Sakura Ya, first Japanese restaurant in a shopping mall

In July 1997 she opened Sakura Ya, a Japanese sushi bar, the first of its kind in a shopping mall (the upmarket Illa Diagonal) with a focus on excellence. She was the first to disrupt spatial solemnity, in setting out a culinary offering of nigiris and sashimis amid the bustle of a shopping area, slipping free of constraints and dispelling fears and myths with a formidable, pioneering sushi bar.

“No Westerner had been down that path. I was appealing to a well-travelled clientèle, with plenty of disposable income, serving quality products. I also set up a takeaway. And I combined all of that with my academic and therapy work, as I also have a consulting practice. After the first few months with a Spanish chef, I set about looking for one from Japan. And it was then that I found Master Tan, a third-generation chef, who came to Spain as an act of rebellion, escaping from an enclosed society,” Anna recalls. The name, Sakura Ya, conceals a double meaning: the owner’s surname, and the translation of “home of the cherry blossom”.

In 2008, Saura also set up Icho, “one of the finest restaurants in Barcelona”, according to reviews of the day. It occupied a higher tier, a gastronomic venue two blocks away, overseen by Master Tan. “There are still people who remember it, with a touch of nostalgia. It maintained that Japanese flavour with a Mediterranean touch.”

Innovating with bluefin tuna

Today the sushi bar is overseen by Sury and Yan; the former was Tan’s protégé, while the latter learned from another legendary itamae, Yasu Nasu. The menu features a splendid tuna tartare with quail’s egg, bluefin tuna tataki with ponzu sauce and sesame, a flawless moriawase of nigiris and makis, avocado uramaki with tuna and mayonnaise. “I didn’t use to like cooked bluefin tuna, I would eat it only reluctantly. But I love it raw. It’s just completely different. A few years ago I convinced our chef to do an usuzukuri cut of tuna. It was sacrilege to apply that cut to tuna, it had never been done. I convinced him with this argument: ‘preserve tradition, but add something new of your own’. That’s how I won him over. I even brought in an artichoke tempura. That all seems quite commonplace now, but back then…,” she says with pride.

“I don’t know if I’m the leading lady of sushi, but I am the leading lady of Japan, at least in terms of bringing in products and expanding the culture. I’ve done more than the Japanese consulate in Barcelona itself. I address Westerners, getting them to try it, giving them guidance. I was the first to do sake tastings, show-cooking… Right now I am where I wanted to be, although I still need to expand Sakura outside Barcelona. I set all this up on my own, and it’s difficult,” adds Anna, who also loves Italian and Turkish cooking.

This Illa Diagonal shopping mall is frequented by politicians, footballers, the bourgeoisie and middle class, wealthy tourists, refined gourmands… Sakura Ya has in fact been delivering sushi boxes to none other than the changing rooms at FC Barcelona for some time. Before we say our farewells, she shares a couple of other confessions, her chest swelling with pride: Saura declares that she was the first to introduce the (now widespread) mochi, not to mention that a legendary chef explored the mysteries of agar-agar thanks to her. His name? Ferran Adrià.