1815 S Coast Hwy, Oceanside
Tucked in the back of Oceanside Bull Taco, Wrench and Rodent is the brainchild of Davin Waite, local sushi guy who came up through the ranks of La Jolla’s Cafe Japengo. The name allegedly means nothing except, "We're very cheeky," at least according to the staff. The place bills itself as a tiny oasis of sushi greatness, a place where sushi nerds can geek out over cutting edge preparations of “unorthodox nigiri and sashimi.” The restaurant’s Facebook page teems with food porny snapshots of unusual fish parts prepared to melt the heart of the most-bored food cynic.
Plus, the buzz was nothing but positive. Everybody seemed stoked on the Seabasstropub. I guess I was just set up for disappointment.
One piece from a big, soft, glossy mag said the place had a “Victorian punk rock style.” Grungy is one thing, but the Seabasstropub comes off as seedy and, at least metaphorically, dirty. I can see embracing some grittiness, but sticky tables and sloppy service? I wouldn’t begrudge a restaurant for not wanting to meet my few, extremely simple requests — unless of course the menu said, “We appreciate your creativity; special requests are always welcome!”
Apparently, they aren’t. Lesson learned.
OK, on to the food. Wrench and Rodent’s claim to fame lies with creative sushi preparations, but much of the preparations reveal a trying-too-hard mentality. Many of their sauces, like the arugula chimichurri and the caper tapenade, are just too fierce for sushi. They lack subtlety, and there’s no question that a simple nikiri (Mirin and soy sauce) would better complement the “chef-selected” fish of which Wrench and Rodent is so proud.
The only thing worse is when the kitchen, for some baffling reason, decides to omit everything from the sushi. Yellowtail and tuna both came out to table without any trace of wasabi or nikiri, and that’s wholly unacceptable at a place with such a high-opinion of itself. Sure, there’s plain old soy sauce on the table, and a big chunk of wasabi on the plate, but should I really be expected to disassemble my sushi, add wasabi (with what? my bare hands?), and then overpower it with undiluted soy sauce?
I think not.
One would think that this temple of sushi-craft would have the basics on lock, but one would be wrong. The basic recipe for the rice is too sweet and gummy, and without good rice and a command of the basics, how are you supposed to elevate the craft above Sushi Deli standards? What’s the point in redefining sushi when you can’t even prepare octopus properly?
A lot of people don’t know this, but Picasso was a more conventional artist before he experimented with Cubist technique and changed the world of art as it was known.
The man had mastered the lessons of the Old Masters, Mannerists, Impressionists, and everything in between, and his artwork only got experimental after that. Reverse engineer a Picasso, and there’s a perfect portrait underneath. The lesson here is that you can’t neglect the basics, which is exactly what the Seabasstropub has done. You want to start a revolution? Fine. But don’t ever think the small stuff doesn’t matter.
When the best thing I can say is, “At least it wasn’t expensive,” well, that’s barely an endorsement. People may think I’m hating just to hate, but let me stress that I came into this restaurant with childlike excitement. I keep a little notebook of restaurants to try, and I wrote the following phrase therein:
holy fucking hell the seabasstropub!
Word for word. I felt like I was in for sushi revelation, so being disappointed like this just plain hurts. Everywhere I go, I hope to be delighted, but Wrench and Rodent broke my foodie heart. It’s a major problem for our food scene when a place glides along on an endless wave of hype; propelled by tidal forces of puffy journalism and aggressive PR campaigns, Yelpers who wouldn’t know real cuisine if it hit them in the teeth, and meek diners who toe the party line that anything labelled “local” is automatically good.
The vital takeaway here is that the Wrench and Rodent Seabasstropub isn't terrible. It's very average, and this isn't meant as some kind of super-personal takedown. The looming problem is that the restaurant, and the bogus things that have been written about it, would have us all believe that The Dalai Sushi Buddah Jesus was behind the bar, imbuing slices of yellowfin tuna with His Holy Certitude.
I could say the same for half-a-dozen other places, all equally hyped, all (almost) equally disappointing.
How about some more of these super-hyped restaurants actually live up to their own promises, or just be real about what they are, OK?