3667 India Street, San Diego
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.
The only disappointment was a red snapper (rockfish) fillet, which looked and tasted peaked -- it's a fragile species that, once sliced, loses its sparkle. On another visit, two days later, the fillets were visibly perky. Blue Water's owners move their stock fast: Fish are delivered or picked up daily, and spend no more than two days in the front counter before they're exiled -- still safe, but with fading flavors -- to the kitchen for fish soup. Still, some species will inevitably be fresher than others even as they arrive. If you're not sure, just ask what's best that day.
If my mother were alive and in San Diego, she'd likely settle in Blue Water's neighborhood just so she could regularly enjoy what she'd call "a nice piece of fish" (and big, healthy salad). She'd be gladder yet that -- unlike the pelican -- she wouldn't get a big bill for it.
ABOUT BLUE WATER
Finding restaurant-quality raw seafood in the San Diego metro area isn't easy. You can go to live-tank Asian markets on El Cajon or University, near the eastern end of City Heights, or head for similar markets in National City and Chula Vista. You can buy precious fish from Whole Foods, at a precious price, or get live lobster and crabs (nothing more) from a wholesaler on Main and 28th Streets, and...that's all, folks! For the rest, the offerings at the retail counter at the Fish Market -- even local catch -- are "processed" up in Monterey, and the extra days in transit dims their luster. The aromas at the fish section of the Logan Heights Farmer's Market are off-putting, while most seafood at the chain supermarkets is safe but sorry. As for the smaller groceries -- your choices are confined to previously frozen shrimp, snapper, or tilapia.
The Braun family was aware of this pitiful situation when they decided to open Blue Water, venturing into a site where several restaurants have failed before. Judd (aged 29) is the cheerful, freckle-faced guy you'll meet at one counter or the other. His wife Alys (pronounced "Elise") works upstairs in the offices, and parents Tina and Larry Braun complete the family partnership.
"I've always liked fish, and fishing, and cooking," says Judd. "I worked at El Pescador in La Jolla. The owner was my mentor, really taught me how to treat fish properly. Most of my fish expertise I owe to him. I also worked at Point Loma Seafoods. They take great care of their fish as well.
"We get fish every single day, and even on Sundays, we do will-call and pick it up. We don't play around with this. We buy from Chesapeake, and we get the Hawaiian species from a company in L.A. There's no point in having a fish market if you don't have fresh fish. We have a few local fishermen that we will deal with when summer comes around and the local fish are in season. Chesapeake is expensive, but we deal with them because we want to carry top products. They let us get whatever we want; they don't insist on a minimum. I really scrutinize the fish, and we send a lot of it back if it doesn't meet our standards. They're even okay with taking it back. It's important to establish a comfortable relationship. Some companies will send you garbage to see if you'll take it.
"We don't carry any frozen fish except when we have to -- for instance, shrimp is almost always frozen. That's why we don't carry trolled King salmon right now, because it would only be frozen, and I don't want any frozen fish in the case. Pretty soon Copper River and Coho are coming, and we have a really good connection with a local fisherman up there for it. It's a bit 'spendy,' but it's really nice fish. It should be in around the middle of April.
"We're thinking about doing fried fish because it's so popular, but you can go anywhere to get that, and 99 percent of what you're getting when you buy it is cheap frozen pollock. That really turns me off. Later on, maybe we'll find a way to do good fried fish, but for now we're just concentrating on stuff we're already good at -- simple grilled seafood. We have a tiny kitchen with just a 37-inch grill. It really gets hectic in there on Friday and Saturday nights. We have a couple of rotating chefs, local guys I grew up with and worked with at Point Loma and El Pescador.
"We thought it was kind of cute to serve really good food on plastic plates. We didn't want to put our money into the façade; we throw it into the food. We want to make it good and affordable. I think the overall feel and vibe of this place is coming out pretty well -- that is, come in, feel comfortable, eat well. We'll bend over backwards as much as we can to get people what they want. All our guys are young and eager and want to help."