Sawa Restaurant & Lounge: Jack-of-all-trades, master of none

Sawa is a variety show of a restaurant. Diners are treated to a procession of sushi, kebabs, tapas, soups, salads, entrées, hookahs, belly dancers (accompanied by ear-splitting music), LED shows, and sports on flat-screen TV sets. There are menus for breakfast, lunch, dinner, a five-hour happy hour, a late-night happy hour, weekend brunch, wines, bottle service, and cocktails (22 flavors of vodka) — plus an extensive, 18-item bill of fare for dogs. The only thing missing is a sommelier named Topo Gigio.

The Japanese-Mediterranean eatery opened about a year ago in the Village of Merrick Park. The indoor portion of the restaurant is lounge-like and seats 32; a dozen more seats run along a curved bar at the front. Just about everybody chooses to sit on the patio beneath the mall's royal palms. Also outside is a cabana with white curtains and sofas, the favored place for smoking hookahs ($20 for a pipe of flavored tobacco and $25 to $33 with alcohol placed in the bottom of the hookah "to enjoy your favorite cocktail in a completely different way!").

It is as true of restaurants as it is with humans: Those trying to be a jack-of-all-trades end up mastering none. Dinner began with none-too-friendly workers at the host stand and ended with a 20-minute wait for the check (which added $18 to my meal because I was ticketed five minutes before I arrived back at the car; one would think two hours would have been enough time for a meal with no wine, coffee, or dessert).


Sawa Restaurant and Lounge

The Village of Merrick Park, 360 San Lorenzo Ave., Coral Gables; 305-447-6555; Lunch and dinner Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to midnight. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Late-night menu daily 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.

View our Sawa Restaurant and Lounge slide show.

That was the first visit. Next time out, a person in our group arrived early (8 p.m.) and ordered a taramosalata starter to munch on while waiting for the rest of us. We showed up 30 minutes later, ahead of the appetizer. It was assumed the waiter had forgotten the order, yet at 9:05 he placed the caviar spread upon our table without comment. So it took one hour and five minutes to bring out a cold, preprepared dish that merely had to be scooped into a bowl. That has to be a record for a restaurant, especially one that wasn't crowded at the time.

I'll spare other examples of almost comic haplessness; service was simply inept and management nonexistent. The cuisine wasn't masterful either; it ranged from very good to mostly pretty bad.

Pita bread and a small ramekin of sun-dried tomatoes are brought to diners while they peruse the lengthy menu. Try not to place the pita next to a cloth napkin, or confusion might ensue: Both are thin, cheap, cold, and papery. Still, they are suitable for the five Middle Eastern spreads offered. We tried the whole quintet — plus a bit of tabbouleh salad — on an $11.95 combo plate. A middling spinach-artichoke dip didn't impress, but the hummus, smoked eggplant purée, labne (yogurt-cucumber spread), taramosalata, and tabbouleh were fresh, stellar versions. "To-die-for falafel" presented four dry, flat, overcooked chickpea patties with a drizzle of "truffle tahini" on top. We didn't taste any truffle, which is just as well.

Among the tapas: Four pork gyoza were fine, beef tongue carpaccio was overpowered by a lemony citrus dressing, and a tiradito of "grilled diver scallops" brought thick coins of the shellfish (not seared on a grill) piled up and pooled in another potent lemon sauce, which with aji amarillo tasted a bit like Tang.

Sushi/sashimi selections encompass popular picks such as tuna, yellowtail, shrimp, and salmon. Two pieces of eel sashimi were electrically delectable — warm with thick, savory glaze. Rolls, too, rock the greatest hits: California, shrimp tempura, soft-shell crab, and the like. Our spicy "kamikaze" tuna/avocado roll sufficed in commercial sushi fashion.

The menu offers five sakes (one of which is hot, another sparkling). The wine list is likewise concise and not surprisingly global — from Napa to Spain to Lebanon, with most bottles $30 to $45.

Chef Jouvens Jean has worked in a number of local restaurants, including a stint as senior sous chef at the Conrad Miami. Here and there his talent pokes through the mayhem. A pair of chicken kebabs culled from the thighs were very flavorful with garlic aioli and a pyramid of moist cranberry/mint/candied-walnut couscous (which was pleasingly sweet and less conflicted than it sounds). Also gratifying was an entrée of grilled lamb rack, whose meat was redolent of rosemary and tender as could be. The rest of the plate paled by comparison, with a jalapeño-mint demi-glace seemingly based on a cheap brand of bouillon, and olive-oil-blanched fingerling potatoes on the side tasting as though they'd been sitting around even longer than we had.

We wanted to try braised pork shank with garlic mashed potatoes, one of three red-meat entrées, but the kitchen was all out. There was no more branzino either, one of three main-course seafoods. The other two choices were Chilean sea bass and bluefin tuna (both endangered species). The latter brought three wedges of seared pink fish that was tasteless atop a "kimchee" of zucchini, yellow squash, and carrots marinated in mildly spiced vinegar.

Time to bring on the next act.


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