2958 Madison Street, Carlsbad
The Love Boat sushi restaurants aren’t upscale. They’re fun, in an “eat sushi till you drop” kind of way, but there’s nothing special there, and that’s using the word “sushi” in its broadest sense. Blue Ocean Sushi and Robata Grill, which is owned by the Love Boat, is another matter entirely. It’s no food court stalwart; with chic design from Bells and Whistles (Starlite Lounge, among others), the place got a big facelift over its former life as Chin’s. Ample, diffuse lighting; lightly stained wood; and elegantly customized fixtures make the place look like diners should expect to spend a pretty penny. Surprisingly, the menu opens to reveal fairly reasonable pricing, such that dinner for two will probably run closer to $60 or $70. It could get more expensive if diners delve into the excellent menu of cocktails and Japanese whiskey.
A certain heavy-handedness in the sushi preparation — rice allowed to soak up sauce, inconsistent fish temperatures, et cetera — reflects Blue Ocean’s connection to the Love Boat at some points, but the overall experience is good. Fresh-tasting rice with a hot, dry (for sushi rice) consistency delights more than expected. Small, saving graces give the otherwise clumsy sushi a second chance. Take the scallop nigiri, for instance. It’s generous, but the chopped scallops fall out of their little gunkan in a most unappealing fashion. This can be a bad order in most places, but Blue Ocean pulled a brilliant move, concealing a slice of shiso leaf beneath the scallops, thus elevating the dish. If only they had labelled it as kizami hotate so that diners could know they were getting a chopped scallop order...
Nevertheless, that kind of pleasant surprise characterizes Blue Ocean’s sushi service, moreso than the inherent clumsiness of simply not being Ota, Tadokoro, Akinori, et. al. Being able to get live abalone sashimi (!) and bluefin tuna (which lots of places “regret not having today” when you order it) is just icing on the cake.
The charcoal-burning robata grill tries to steal the show when it can. Skewered meats run pricier by several dollars than they would from a more modest yakitori grill, but that’s too be expected given the enjoyable surroundings. Yuzukosho, maybe the world’s best condiment, makes a surprise appearance on the skewered chicken hearts. Given that, there is zero need for the generous sprinkle of sea salt crusting the hearts.
The pork belly also comes across as salty, though more fatty and delightful than anything else.
All told, it’s hard to find major fault with the yakitori offerings, though the price of some dishes ($9 for a single skewer of seabass?!) makes the wallet yearn for Yakitori Yakyudori or Tek Chan’s friendlier pricing.
The enormous menu doesn’t stop at sushi and robata. Courtesy of some very small print, a vast array of dinner plates, tapas, and salads manage to squeeze into a few narrow menu pages. Consider the cashew salad, served as a weird and unexpected lettuce wrap, it’s more delicious than it should be, and carries Chinese takeout memories of #45, chicken with cashew nuts.
Considering its pedigree, Blue Ocean comes off as a tremendous surprise, but an altogether pleasant one. Small quibbles aside, this place is nearly worth the trip to North County for urban San Diegans. In conjunction with a Carlsbad beach trip, it’s really worth a shot.