“I’m not making art, I’m making sushi.” ~Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto
Amawari Tuna & Sake
Chatan Cho, Immediately behind Family Mart outside Kadena AB Gate 1
Food Quality: Average to Below Average
[This will be the first of a long line of restaurant reviews while stationed here on Okinawa]
Monday night Jody and I decided that it was high time for her to finally dive in and try some local, authentic Okinawan sushi. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t cooperating. So, instead of focusing on a known and reputable sushi establishment from which to dine, we let an alternate agenda cloud our better judgment.
You see, Family Mart – one of two primary local convenience store chains here on-island – has these really cute and yummy single serving sizes of rather odd flavors of ice cream, gelato, and sorbet generally not found back in the states. Since this particular dessert was the true goal of the evening, and thanks to Tropical Storm Toraji appearing from virtually nowhere but brining driving rain and gusting winds, we decided to try a Sunabe eatery located immediately behind our local Family Mart, allowing us to make mad and relatively dry dashes to both locations, thereby killing the proverbial two birds with one stone.
Tuna & Sake Amawari is the name of this place. Although I do believe it was here both other times I’ve lived on island, it never had the curbside appeal that would cause me to want to take the jog off the roads and into their parking lot. You see, it is right next to a pachinko parlor, with a hard to maneuver in parking lot. Things Vegas, but without all the glitz, public transportation, and all-you-can-eat steak buffets.
On quick glance as we arrived around 7-ish, there were few cars in the parking, none of them American. Although this was not a positive sign, I didn’t say anything to Jody as I was excited for her to finally be trying something I had talked up so much in anticipation of our fling into the Far East.
We entered, and there were maybe three tables taken; a couple at one, a group of men at another, and a single sitting at another…we’ll refer to him as “loser” since he plays into the story. We immediately directed away from the tables and tatami area, and instead were whisked all the way into the back corner, where a privacy curtain was drawn…which offered no privacy at all. It was a nice gesture though.
The wait staff brought us a menu in English, and right off the get-go, the menu of this Amawari is very limited. One “set,” a popular term in Japanese restaurants that means a heck of a lot more than simply “meal combo” back home, stated quite plainly in English that there was no translation available by stating directly“…in Japanese only.” Fine. It looked nice though.
After deciphering the mojito (spelled using our alphabet) colors into flavors (all of which were in Japanese), I ordered a lime mojito. It came quickly, but was very light in color, with absolutely no mint, muddled or otherwise present in the glass. It was light and refreshing, but very weak on alcohol, and seemed to be watered down with a large portion of what tasted like ginger ale. I couldn’t help but notice that the loser got one as well, and I swear to you that his had mint! Maybe it was the light playing tricks. Or maybe his mojito actually wins. It wasn’t an expensive drink, clocking in at around 400 yen. You get what you pay for, yes? Sometimes no.
We waited an awful long time to order, and just as I realized we had a “call” button at the table (as many restaurants in Japan and Okinawa do), the staff must have figured out that the ignorant Gaijin would never figure it out, and a waitress came and cheerfully took our order. I ordered garlic fried rice, edamame, and yakitori. Jody ordered two plates of sushi – grilled fatty tuna sushi, and salmon sushi, each five pieces.
The garlic fried rice appeared first, served in a wooden bowl with a pleasant and effectively small ladle, with volume enough for the both of us to share, leaving leftovers. It was fresh, hot, and delicious, loaded with egg, bacon, and yes, plenty of garlic. The bacon was nearly as rendered as we would expect in the West, but it played off very well with the garlic and toasted sesame flavors inherent in the dish. This dish seemed to improve upon our Las Vegas odds of having a pleasing meal after the initial disappointment of the mojito.
The edamame came next, served steaming on an interesting bamboo platter, the combination looking quite appealing. However, it was somewhat of a letdown. Either it wasn’t fresh, or was overcooked, or quite possibly a little of both. It’s sad that the totally American-staffed and American-operated Sidelines sports bar, which replaced the quaint and quiet Fujiya joint a block and a half off the seawall, actually had some fresh, perfectly cooked and well-seasoned edamame. That review is for another time, but mostly because we were just using them for their Wi-Fi until ours was installed at the condo.
Finally the time arrived for the main event. The yakitori was served as chunks of dark-meat chicken resting in sauce, rather than chicken that was grilled with the sauce. Almost every other instance I can recall involving this concoction, it was presented on a skewer, enhancing and validating the grilled aspect that makes this dish so succulent. Amawari’s version lacked the deep smoky charring and caramelized sugars of the roasted sauce, but was acceptable nonetheless.
The sushi, however, was quite a disappointment. The grilled fatty tuna, listed exactly this way on the menu, was brought to our table with little fanfare, in terms of preparation or presentation. On a rather plane long rectangular tray were arranged hearty pieces of tuna over rice without further accoutrement, less the token dollop of wasabi. Although the “grilling” was done tableside, it consisted of nothing more than a blow-torch flame run back and forth across the tuna until the meat turned a rather unappetizing beige, the same color of every single building and structure on all the Marine bases on Okinawa. Jody said it tasted good, though.
The salmon was presented in the same fashion, complete with its own unappetizing qualities. It seems the Japanese leave part of what I’ll call here a “blood vein” on the fish. Although we understand this element of the fish to be edible, its sinew-like appearance does nothing to help the diner eat with her eyes first. And we would not think to serve such a cut in the United States. Loser-man of winning cocktail-fame appeared to order this same dish, although I was too far away to attempt to begin to spy at how his fish was prepared.
But perhaps the worst part of Jody’s sushi experience was tactile. Jody, a seasoned sushi-eater and chop sticks-user, was unable to keep any of the sushi together. Between the size of the pieces and their tendency to explode into their constituent parts, Jody was again let down. I did notice that Mr. Winning Sushi & Cocktail but single-diner-loser had no trouble whatsoever in eating his. My on the fly advice to Jody based on a quick time-series study of his movements and technique were, alas, to no avail. At least Jody is rather adept at keeping stains off her shirt, a skill I cannot claim proficiency with.
All in all, this was a sad dining experience on Okinawa. Although I have come to not expect much physically from an eatery’s surroundings, I do expect a certain level of pleasant if not groovy ambiance, and certainly outstanding food is easy enough to find. Not in this case however; Amawari lacked both.