If you are searching for a single metaphor to capture the gentrification of East Nashville in recent years, look no further than Watanabe Sushi & Asian Restaurant's McGavock Pike roll. Like the resurgence of retail and residential activity in the gritty neighborhoods across the Cumberland, the McGavock Pike roll is a little quirky and exceeds expectations.
Located at the emerging crossroads of McGavock Pike and Riverside Drive, Watanabe is the latest entrepreneurial undertaking of Matt Charette, a Massachusetts transplant whose fingerprints are all over the revitalization of East Nashville—especially at Five Points, where he launched Batter'd & Fried seafood restaurant and Beyond the Edge. Open since late 2008, Watanabe easily sweeps the title of best sushi restaurant east of the Cumberland—but not because it is the first of its kind there. Charette planted a raw-fish flag a few years back when he launched Wave Sushi Bar inside Batter'd & Fried.
At Watanabe, Charette shifts the focus from New England wharf-style deep-fried fare to pan-Asian cuisine, with a menu of Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Thai dishes prepared by chef and co-owner Hide Watanabe. (For a profile of Chef Watanabe, see page 34.)
East Nashvillians desperate for a sushi fix can take comfort in knowing that Watanabe is pretty much just like any good sushi place, with a reassuringly predictable list of rolls, sashimi, nigiri and seaweed salad. On the other hand, it's not another blond-wood-and-rice-paper cliché of a Japanese eatery.
Stepping across the threshold of Watanabe is like stepping into a sleek, lacquered Bento box, adorned with bold gold-and-red canvases, a brilliant jade-green concrete bar and simple glowing paper lanterns that punctuate the dark room. The low lighting and subtle din make a comfortable environment for talking, in contrast to the quiet contemplative aura of so many Asian eateries that make you feel like you should whisper across your miso. On two recent weekend evenings, the room was low-key but festive, with a broad array of guests including couples and families with kids.
We opened with the standard sushi-supper repertoire: miso soup and salads. The seaweed salad was just what we hoped for—bouncy emerald strands tinged with soy and sesame. The familiar iceberg salad arrived in a vibrant glass bowl, topped with a generous ladling of zesty orange-ginger dressing and a sprinkling of corn niblets, which added a welcome textural element to the staple salad.
We almost did not know what to make of the rich and flavorful miso soup, which lacked that just-add-water thinness of so many specimens. Charette credited Watanabe's long-simmering stock made with bonito (smoked fish). Bobbing with tofu cubes and green onion and laced with black-green ribbons of wakame, the steaming soup was presented in a crockery bowl sans spoon, and before anyone at our table could embarrass themselves by asking for silverware, Charette stopped by to explain that chef Watanabe encourages picking up the bowl with both hands and sipping. (We'd be just as happy to see every restaurant ditch the dainty utensils in favor of this hearty habit.)
When it comes to critiquing sushi, our reliable acid test is the scallop, which can range from sweet and buttery to fishy and rubbery depending on freshness—not to mention whether it is actually even scallop, or just a cookie-cuttered puck of white fish. Watanabe's scallop, while clocking in at a relatively pricey $6.49 for two pieces of nigiri, was sumptuously fresh with a mystifying texture somewhere between a liquid and solid that melted away like butter candy, requiring almost no chewing.
The rest of our sushi—including a decadent serving of silky toro—lived up to that standard, and the Plum combo platter with nigiri of tuna, salmon, shrimp, white fish, tobiko, yellow tail, mackerel, octopus and crab with a choice of crunchy shrimp or spicy tuna roll was a generous sampler, served with soup and salad.
While Watanabe offers a full array of sushi, we were rewarded for our detours to pad Thai and other Asian dishes with noodles and rice. The only mild disappointment we encountered were the gyoza, which had the familiar taste and texture of the frozen dumplings we frequently prepare at home. Other than that, all our dishes bore the hallmark of fresh house-made food. Pad Thai was a pretty plate with a generous tangle of glistening salty-sweet noodles embedded with fried egg, plated with lemon and lime wedges and a dish of spices to tailor the heat of each serving. Upon learning that one member of our group had a shrimp allergy, our server offered to cook the shrimp separately and serve them on the side so we could easily share the noodles. "This is East Nashville," Charette quickly pointed out. "We're used to vegetarians."
Orange chicken was a surprisingly delicious plate of tender breaded-and-fried hunks of chicken in a sweet and tangy sauce. It was served over rice and garnished with thread-thin strips of pepper the size of saffron strands, which added a precise kick to each citrus-scented bite. Shrimp yakisoba was a soothing plate of thin stir-fried noodles with broad hunks of cabbage, green onions, mushrooms and carrots in a sauce that was remarkable for its silkiness without the cornstarched texture of so many sickly sweet Chinese dishes.
Among the Japanese curries, teriyaki chicken, udon and soba plates, we were delighted to find a sprinkling of Korean dishes, including kimchi and a bulgogi bowl—a stir-fried medley of marinated thin strips of beef, mushrooms and onions over rice. Apart from the sushi, the Korean bibim bab was the highlight of our meal. An oversize bowl of steamed rice topped with marinated grilled beef, bean sprouts, wilted spinach, steamed carrot sticks and fluffy lettuce was crowned by a gently fried egg. When broken with a fork, the yolk oozed throughout the bowl, unifying the disparate hot and cool ingredients with a warm silky coating. A ramekin of thick curry paste for stirring into the mix added a dry heat to the fresh medley of vegetables, meat and rice. Straddling the line between salad and meat-lover's entrée, the bibim bab was both beautiful and bountiful, and like most meals it came with a soup and salad.
If you don't take children to dine in restaurants, you can stop reading here and happily think of Watanabe as a cool, casual neighborhood hang with a roster of high-alcohol beers, sake, wine and liquor, and a diverse menu of above-par fresh Asian cuisine. But if you've got a brood and can't face another trifecta of mac-and-cheese, chicken fingers and grilled cheese, then take heart. Watanabe offers a kids' repertoire of Japanese curry (a non-spicy dish), chicken teriyaki and soba noodles that is more like a menu that has been sized down for kids rather than dumbed down for them. (The kids' dishes are priced between $6 and $7, not including drinks.) The cool segmented oranges on the plates made a big impression, as did the tender hunks of chicken in subtle, homemade teriyaki. My children ate it, enjoyed it and remembered it fondly enough to ask for it again when I told them we were returning to Watanabe. To the extent that there were any leftovers, the adults enjoyed the kids' menu too.
In our visits, there was one notable snafu, when our entrée order must have been lost in the kitchen. (We tend to order so much food that it's understandable how a server could think we were ready for our check before all our plates had actually arrived.) As the evening grew long and our tiny guests grew restless, a server swooped in with a basket of origami swans, which appeased our crowd until the order could be rectified. That sort of nimble solution doesn't happen often, and it bodes well for a neighborhood restaurant that understands the changing needs of its neighbors, no matter what age.
Watanabe opens at 4:30 p.m. and serves until 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, with the sushi bar open later. The restaurant is closed Sunday.