Yasushi Watanabe has always been a pioneer of sorts, and that fact is on display at Sushi Nabe. Tucked in between the storefronts of the NorthShore and Coolidge Park, the cozy restaurant reflects its owner's spirit in nearly every way.
Nabe-san has been making sushi since he was 17 years old, when he began honing his craft in his native country of Japan. He came to the United States in 1981, and after stints in Florida and Washington, D.C., he passed through Chattanooga on his way to work for a friend. The city captivated Nabe-san and his wife, Chikako.
"The people in Chattanooga had lots of heart," she told me.
The draw proved irresistible, and they moved here soon after. Watanabe has been serving Japanese cuisine to Chattanoogans ever since, the better part of two decades. Eight years ago, the restaurant moved to its present location to become a part of the downtown renaissance. While I never visited the former location, I can't imagine a more fitting setting for Sushi Nabe.
The space is very intimate, even with the spacious outdoor seating area. As opposed to flashier, more modern restaurants, a trip to Sushi Nabe is more akin to visiting someone's home. The interior is filled with warm, neutral tones, and the walls are adorned with hand-drawn signs relating the contents of their specialty rolls.
The rolls themselves are unique originals. Some originated when Nabe-san began asking his customers where they were from, and drew on those locations for inspiration. Examples include the Biloxi roll (deep-fried and filled with tuna, crab, cream cheese and asparagus) and the Utah roll (snow crab and asparagus with filet mignon and a spicy sauce).
Another category is based on locally popular college sports teams, including the Vol Roll (featuring tempura pumpkin, snow crab, cream cheese and spelt eggs) and the Roll Tide Roll (with shrimp, avocado, cream cheese, and spicy smelt eggs).
The Big Nabe uses tempura crunchies and soy paper to lend contrasting texture to tuna, shrimp, and cucumber, all topped with a spicy sauce. Others aren't even rolls at all. Nabe-san really lets his creativity shine with options like the Nabe Nachos, Japanese tortilla chips topped with tuna, crab, avocado and special sauces.
In addition to these rolls and the beautiful simplicity of sashimi, other Japanese favorites are available as well, including chicken teriyaki and gyoza. Samplers of sorts are available in the form of bento boxes, filled with a variety of selections.
I chose one of Nabe-san's unique offerings on my visit. Sushi Nabe used to have a roster of seasonal rolls through which they would rotate, but customers kept asking for the winter selections throughout the year—now choices like the Christmas Roll and Eskimo Roll are on offer year-round. One in particular sounded too interesting not to try, and after sipping on green tea provided by Mrs. Watanabe and sampling the house-made pickles (from local farm-fresh cucumbers), the Candy Cane Roll arrived.
It was visually stunning, evoking its namesake—laid out in a cane shape, with silky red and white tuna alternating atop. A light dusting of cayenne provided a nod to the mild spice of the peppermint in the confectionery. The center held crab, cream cheese and tempura crunchies, each in the ideal amount to provide contrast to the fish without being overly heavy. I left satiated and at ease—it definitely qualified as comfort food.
Solo diners can sit at the sushi bar and revel in the work of the sushi experts, each trained by Nabe-san himself. Families are always welcome, and less adventurous children can order from a kids' menu. Even those with dietary restrictions can feel at ease—in addition to sake, they carry gluten-free beers.
Reservations are accepted, but not necessary unless you've got a large group. Parking is free after 4:30 and on Sundays, which came as a pleasant surprise to me.
In short, Sushi Nabe is all about a relaxing experience. It's no small feat to make Japanese cuisine feel so familiar. Nabe-san and Chikako welcome all of their guests like family, and their warmth and radiance is evident in every aspect of their operation. Pay them a visit, and you'll see why Sushi Nabe has become the go-to sushi spot for so many Chattanoogans.
110 River Street
Tues -Friday Lunch: 11:30am-2:30pm, Dinner: 5:00pm-9:30pm
Sat: 12 noon til 10 pm., Sun: 12 noon til 9 pm