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Sushi Sakura occupies the Pikesville location where Fortune House Chinese restaurant was for a short time. Before that, it was a forward-looking and ambitious Chinese restaurant named Try's Asian Fusion that I admired but never went back to after I reviewed it. I had, in fact, come to review Fortune House a few months ago, but it was "closed for painting."

Fortune House, it turned out, was being converted into Sushi Sakura, a perfectly nice Japanese restaurant that I didn't take to at all, in spite of the fact that the food it serves is comparable to what I've enjoyed in similar restaurants for years. In the days after my visit, I thought about my misgivings and why this was one of the few times I've gone out to review - or just out to eat - only to discover I had no appetite.

The food we had was decent, presented well. Packed firmly with pork, the wasabi shumai almost knocked us back on our chairs. That was a nice surprise. The samplings of sushi and sashimi we ordered were prepared and arranged with finesse. I have had better and far worse. For entrees, two diners each chose a big bowl of udon soup, one with shrimp, one with chicken. They arrived steaming hot, and our nice waitress showed us how to manipulate noodles into the plastic spoons to help cool things down. Maybe the broths were a little wan, but the servings were big enough to yield a late-night snack.

I don't see any reason why the teriyaki and tempura dishes on the menu wouldn't be satisfying, and I feel as if I should have ordered more sushi, just to be able to tell you more about it. But something made me hold back. Part of it had to do with the menu itself, which was overly familiar, not only in content but in arrangement and even typeface. I swear I've seen this menu a hundred times before at other restaurants, and I know you have, too. On the other hand, the menu was absent a few items I've grown accustomed to seeing on the menus of even modest joints - things like breaded cutlets and fresh fish entrees.

But mostly my resistance had to do with ambience, a factor I think ends up mattering more in sushi restaurants than in other places. Sushi Sakura is caught between the traditional and contemporary versions of an American sushi restaurant. It's neither energizing nor soothing - at best, it's just neutral. Some of the posh furnishings I remember from Try's Asian Fusion, particularly the elegantly covered chairs, remain but are rearranged now into a less interesting, haphazard way. Those chairs seem out of place now, with bare tables and thin paper napkins. There is no music playing here, just a large plasma television showing Japanese programs. Near the entrance, there is a small bar, used mainly to process carryout orders (Sushi Sakura is BYOB). Damagingly, I think, the sushi bar itself has been shoved toward the back, where most diners will never come into contact with it. I truly think this is why I ordered so little of it.

I understand that there are good reasons to use a template, but it made me feel as if I was eating at a chain restaurant. If it galls me to admit that, it must be infinitely more so for the nice people at Sushi Sakura to hear.

On the menu

* Wasabi shumai - $4.95

* Calamari salad - $5.50

* White tuna sashimi - $5

* Tuna avocado maki roll - $4.50

* Beef teriyaki - $16.95

* Shrimp mei fun udon soup - $14.95

Sushi Sakura

Where:: 3755 Old Court Road, Suite F, Pikesville

Contact: : 410-580-1166

Hours: : Open daily for lunch and dinner

Credit cards: : Master Card, VISA, AMEX

Appetizers: : $2.95-$11.95

Entrees: : $10.95-$24.95

Food: : ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Service: : ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Atmosphere: : ** (2 stars)

[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]

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