3667 India Street, Mission Hills
A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week,
But I'm damned if I see how the helican.
-- Dixon Lanier Merritt
The totem animal of Blue Water Seafood Market and Grill is the pelican, his image greeting you from a flag at the front door and running through the blue-and-white paper menus. The restaurant's motto is "All We Do Is Fish," and that's the truth -- the entire menu consists of seafood, with a few basic side dishes to round out the meals. Another motto, unstated, must be "KISS" ("keep it simple, stupid"), because the cooking follows that rule and is all the better for it. San Diego is home to many "economy class" seafood joints (serving fried fish and/or ready-made from Sysco). To my tastes, this clean-cut newbie blows 'em out of the water.
The first thing you notice upon entering the bright, white room is an L-shaped retail seafood counter. Do the words "Copper River salmon" make your heart leap? By the time you read this, you'll find it in the case here, fresh from Alaska. For city dwellers south of Interstate 8 and west of the 805, restaurant-quality raw seafood is a far rarer bird than a pelican. The owners of Blue Water were aware of the lack, and that's one reason they started this venture.
For dine-in restaurant dishes, the order counter is at the back of the room. One chalkboard lists the available species of the day, another the specials. (Sometimes the specials are more expensive species than those sold at the retail counter, hence purchased in smaller quantities.) Don't look for fried fish -- they don't serve it. You can get a side of fries or onion rings, but the main fish-cooking medium here is the grill. Once you've announced your choices, you grab napkins and plastic utensils from the side of the counter and choose a seat. Someone will find you and deliver your goodies (on black plastic plates or in bowls) when they're ready. The front room contains six or seven tables, and there are more in an adjoining roofed-over garden patio. The tables sport empty Yellowtail Pale Ale cardboard six-packs filled with condiments: ketchup, two Mexican hot sauces, Sriracha Asian hot sauce, and Kikkoman soy.
Our first foray began with a half dozen oysters on the half-shell. They were big, luscious Bluepoints, sea-fresh and rich in the mouth -- the juiciest oysters I can remember since Royale Brasserie devolved into Lou and Mickey's. (When they're not Bluepoint, they're Chef's Creek, another big, clean-flavored breed.) They arrive with a house-made cocktail sauce, a balanced mixture of ketchup, fresh-grated horseradish, lemon juice, and parsley. More horseradish is sprinkled on top, and lemon wedges come on the side. At our second visit, having planned to order entrées, we limited ourselves to a pair of spicy oyster shooters. Once again, the oysters were exquisite, with an incendiary, sinus-clearing cocktail sauce. These must be the ultimate hangover slap-in-the-face.
The fabulous, messy swordfish taco is ideal, a soft corn tortilla overloaded with tomato, shredded cabbage, thinned mayo dressing, and a chunk of perfectly grilled swordfish, fresh tasting and firm. My partner and I were surprised at how much better it worked than the typical batter-fried fish. Other filling choices are mahi mahi or grilled shrimp.
The clam chowder is an honest, flour-free cream of potato soup, amended with natural clam juices and strips of fresh (not canned) clams. It's underseasoned -- a plus -- just add salt and pepper to taste. My one complaint is that it arrives hot as napalm; you must wait while it wafts tempting aromas at you until it's cooled enough to sip.
Don't look for a San Francisco-style cioppino here (or anywhere else in San Diego, for that matter), because the Dungeness crab that dominates the Fisherman's Wharf recipe rarely travels this far south. That said, Blue Water makes a good soup, a tomatoey fish fumet laden with firm (not dry) fin-fish pieces and a heap of bell pepper, celery, and carrots. The house ceviche, however, pushed my expectations too far out of shape. Cubes of snapper are mixed with shrimp and scallops, an equal or greater quantity of diced tomato, and cured with more lemon than lime juice for a sour flavor. It's legitimate (resembling Peruvian ceviche, rather than the more familiar Baja rendition), but I'm just not that into it.
For a substantial meal, you can order a seafood sandwich (well garnished on a soft bolillo roll), a seafood salad, or an entrée plate. The seafoods are grilled to order, glazed with your choice of lemon butter, garlic butter, lemon-garlic butter, teriyaki, chipotle, or blackened (which must mean rubbed with "blackening spices," since the flesh is still grilled, not sautéed à la Paul Prud'homme).
Along with the fish, dinner plates include rice to soak up the juices, and a huge, elaborate salad with a choice of dressings. I was crazy about my bleu cheese, and my partner went ape for his ranch. "Find out what brand of dressings they're using!" he told me. "I want to buy it." No such luck -- all the dressings are made from scratch.
Halibut is always fresh at Blue Water because, as America's favorite fish, it turns over fastest. I usually shy away from ordering it, because few chefs know how to maximize its gentle virtues. Here, the pristine fish was grilled to absolute tenderness; a topping of lemon-garlic butter brought out its delicate flavor. This simple, sensitive treatment ranks with the best renditions of halibut that I've tasted. My partner had mahi mahi with chipotle glaze. The fish was perhaps a day older, and we both felt that the glaze wasn't quite right for it. (The chipotle flavor might work better with grilled shrimp or shark.)
In addition to sampling cooked seafoods, we also bought raw fish to prepare at home. The one night we didn't order oysters to eat on the spot, we took some home to scrupulously verify the consistency of their quality (heh heh). Over a stretch of two weeks, they were always incredible. A hunk of Scottish salmon was more refined than Pacific wild salmon, tighter-knit and cleaner-flavored than farm-raised salmon from our side of the Atlantic. Mako shark looked good and tasted better. Shark can be chancy -- two minutes past its prime, it develops an edgy odor -- but this smelled like the sea and had wonderfully firm flesh.