Sushi SNAFU! Tuna & Sake Amawari Resturant Review

“I’m not making art, I’m making sushi.” ~Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto

He was NOT our chef

He was NOT our chef

Tune & Sake Amawari, Chatan Cho

Tune & Sake Amawari, Chatan Cho

Amawari Tuna & Sake

Chatan Cho, Immediately behind Family Mart outside Kadena AB Gate 1

Ambiance: Poor

Service: Good

Cocktails: Poor

Food Quality: Average to Below Average

Price/Value: Poor

[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.

Third TS in Three Weeks!

Third TS in Three Weeks!

I would like to kill a couple of those angry birds....

I would like to kill a couple of those angry birds….

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.

Crazy actually IS crazy in Okinawa, not this Vegas knock-off

Crazy actually IS crazy in Okinawa, not this Vegas knock-off

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.

Ambiance is...not as it is portrayed

Ambiance is…not as it is portrayed

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.

Looks nice, but for Gaijin?

Looks nice, but for Gaijin?

The Ever Popular "Obama Roll" Isn't Available.  Yet.

The Ever Popular “Obama Roll” Isn’t Available.  Yet.

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.

Here the Bar is Low.  In fact, there isn't a Sushi Bar at all....

Here the Bar is Low. In fact, there isn’t a Sushi Bar at all….

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.

Large Menus, Limited Selection

Large Menus, Limited Selection

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.

More Menu Options

More Menu Options

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.

Slender Selections

Slender Selections

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.

Private SNAFU probably didn't eat here....

Private SNAFU probably didn’t eat here….

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.

This is Your Brain on Sushi

This is Your Brain on Sushi

Lost in Translation

Ichiban in Japanese.

Ichiban in Japanese.

“Ichiban” (Japanese) – literally “first” with an air of superiority; alternatively, “the shiznit” as urban slang….

This is NOT a story about shiznit. It is a story about things getting Lost in Translation, a favorite pastime of the Japanese.Realizing that Jody and I will probably not eat enough Japanese food while living in Okinawa over the next three years (here’s where you should feel the sarcasm dripping down the back of your neck), we decided – after an exhausting day of moving and packing for our Far East Fling – to head over to one of our favorite local Japanese restaurants in Pensacola, Ichiban.

Ichiban has been consistently good, marginally authentic, and we both consider it one of our better Asian-inspired and flavored eateries.  We ask for one of their low tables, the gimmicky ones with a tatami floor, you know, to help us get into the habit of taking our shoes off about five times as often as we ‘Mericans do in the states.  I glance over at the Sushi bar, and I see THREE what appear to be full-blooded and able-bodied Japanese sushi chefs.  No Amerasians or API knock-offs here.  Oh, and they are working in a space the size of small linen closet.  The ambiance is good; picturesque Japanese-themed décor in low light, all seats taken by eager, happy and hungry customers.

Ichiban, Pensacola, FL

Ichiban, Pensacola, FL

And then our overly caucasian waiter shows up.

No problem.  He’s very courtesy, soft-spoken, and by all appearances, seems to be a seasoned waiter capable of handling the most complex of sushi orders.  So, we start to order, and something odd happens….

Jody orders a couple of sushi rolls and asks to leave the cream cheese off, to which the waiter – we’ll call him Gaijin for purposes which complement this blog oh so well (and if you really appreciate this particular vernacular reference, please leave a comment!) – jokes that he too dislikes cream cheese on his sushi and gladly annotates his order-taking/keeping pad just so.  One hopes.

Now my turn.  I order vegetable tempura – a very hard thing to cook properly at home (seltzer water is the key in the batter, but mum’s the word).  One of the primary reasons I asked Jody to marry me stems from our mutual, shall we say, “dislike” of mushrooms, and since the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty keeps me from declaring global thermonuclear war on all mushrooms far and wide, I asked Gaijin to substitute another vegetable in place of ‘shrooms.

He smiles helpfully as he offers his first and almost instantaneous suggestion for a viable substitute for the disgusting and offensive fungi:  cucumbers.

Jody and I share one of those almost imperceptible yet knowing glances with each other, the kind that come only from a deep intimacy, mentally and silently both stating in unison, “cucumber tempura??”  I swear Jody’s lips mimed this phrase!

I look up at Gaijin and smile that kind of smile where you don’t know exactly what to say without embarrassing someone you don’t know nor wish to put on the spot.  I start, trying to buy some time while my mind raced for a more optimal solution, “Well, I was thinking more like….”

“Asparagus?” Gaijin replies.

If we could only empty them on our command.

If we could only empty them on our command.

“Yes,” my response comes, said quickly in relieved fashion.  But then immediately the thought flashes through my mind:  asparagus is not normally a “standard” tempura vegetable.  Way too expensive.  Confusion returns, but all seems well and I really like tempura asparagus, so I let this portion of my order go.  And I continue order udon soup – my favorite Asian soup besides maybe Vietnamese Pho – as my main dinner entrée.

The service is good and attentive, and our drinks and Japanese ginger tea quickly arrive.  But we wait and wait, and for a tempura appetizer, it seems an inordinately long period of time.

And then suddenly food appears.  Jody gets her sushi rolls…as ordered.

And just as suddenly, what appear to be sushi rolls are placed in front of me.  “Veggie sushi roll,” Gaijin speaks softly as he glides a plate in front of me.

Vegetable Sushi - what's the point? And not what I ordered....

Vegetable Sushi – what’s the point? And not what I ordered….

“Oh I don’t think so!” I reply.  Now he looks as equally perplexed.  “No, I ordered the vegetable tempura.”  More bewilderment as you can literally see the waiter replaying in HIS mind the order-taking process from 15 minutes prior, but surely one of fifty tonight to try and remember, and no doubt, one of hundreds for the week which would befuddle even the most proficient of servers.

Weird yet Official Signage in Japan

Weird yet Official Signage in Japan

No problem.  Mistakes happen.  And as quickly as the food was placed, it was removed while Gaijin retires to correct his mistake.  In the meantime, my soup does arrive.  As ordered, mind you, but not as prepared as it is in the orient.  Nor does it taste even remotely like even the shadow of an udon soup bowl in the Far East….

Delicious Udon Soup.  It awaits me somewhere in Okinawa....

Delicious Udon Soup. It awaits me somewhere in Okinawa….

Jody and I, however, make the best of our situation and endeavor to happily enjoy our food, talking about how much we look forward to eating out in Okinawa.

And my tempura arrives….

An official boatload of tempura....

An official boatload of tempura….

…to our shock and awe.  And even speechless amazement.

It is a “tempura boat” dinner entrée!  I literally have never seen more tempura on one plate – which happens to be one of those cheesy boats so often used in American Asian food – in my life.  Certainly easily enough to feed a table of four, if not six comfortably.  So large, in fact, that it’s quite ridiculous not just to be placed on my table, but served with another entrée item off the menu…to a single diner.



At this point really all we can do is laugh.  And we do.  However, as I’m smirking about the foolishness of this particular situation, I do tell Gaijin that what and all I really wanted was a couple of hot, succulent, perfectly breaded pieces of tempura.  Well, actually no, I didn’t say exactly that; I did say that I wanted the appetizer tempura, and at this point, Gaijin offers a final apology and retires quickly, and quite unexpectedly extricates himself from the awkward situation.  Of his making.

Needless to say, the attentiveness to our needs for the remainder of the evening was significantly curtailed.

So, this actually turned out to be the perfect way to prepare if not wet our expectations – and our taste buds – for our upcoming Far East Flirtations with any number of forthcoming culinary adventures.  We, at least, can be assured that our wait staff overseas will be…for sure Japanese…and mostly correct in translation, even though quite certainly English will be at least their second language.

And hopefully, god willing, this will be our LAST silly gaijin-boatload of tempura.

PS – if you couldn’t figure out or decipher the featured graphic, below you’ll find the key: