There are few things as palpably exciting as watching art being conceived and executed for you, in front of you and as you gaze upon the process. As we sat at the sushi bar in front of Chef Rob Ruiz, proprietor of The Land and Water Company in Carlsbad, CA and uttered the magic words, “Omakase, please,” time seemed to slow for a heartbeat. His gaze turned into a thousand mile stare, body and mind temporarily displaced into another dimension, all energy focused inwardly for a second or three as he ruminated on the chain of food and events that was about to occur. As he returned to the here and now, he said, “I was thinking about how I’m going to do this.”
I had no doubts going into this meal that it was going to be special, but, apparently, I had no clue exactly how special. Omakase from Chef Rob does not consist of a pre-set Chef’s Special line-up, but is choreographed based on his feel for the rhythm of the evening and the capacity of the diners he is serving. I had met Chef Rob at a Collaboration Kitchen event I covered a couple of months ago and was enamored with the honor and respect he seemed to have for the fish he was preparing, the humility and self-deprecation with which he talked about his training in Hawaii and Japan and his idealistic conveyance of the importance of tradition in sushi and the role that sustainable and re-generative sourcing plays in the long term survival our food sources.
As Chef Rob began to prepare cutting the fish, out of the reefer behind him comes this cool looking box. Having eaten many hundreds of meals of sushi in more restaurants than I can remember in a handful of different countries, including several Japanese prefectures, this was a new one for me. What was this magical, beautiful box? Chef Rob explains that it’s an old school, glass topped “neta,” so old school that it’s not in use very much anymore, even in very traditional sushi settings. In the lower level, beneath the bamboo slats are ice packs, a modern nod to convenience over ice blocks, but otherwise, this is how fresh sushi grade fish might have been stored in the days before refrigeration.
A shiso wrapped amuse bouche was presented first. Nope, I don’t remember what was wrapped inside, although I kind of think that was the point. It was kind of like being hand fed a tasty little morsel blindfolded. The not knowing makes it so much better. Next, Chef placed a small purple blossom on the plate in front of me and beckons me to taste it. A few soft chews of the Blue Borage blossom and I had a mouthful of cucumber essence. It was a great lead in to the Spring salad we were treated to next, with fresh produce, fruit and vegetables grown and hand-picked locally.
I recently wrote about octopus, how so many are doing it and so few are getting it right. I don’t think it gets any more right than this. Pre-seasoned and then placed on a cold smoker, brought up to temperature as the smoker heats, then flash chilled and finished on a plancha, this octopus was tooth tender, yet firm, infused with smoke and flavor, but with a brininess that brought the natural ocean flavors to the forefront. The only problem here was that there wasn’t more of it.
The grain of this yellowtail sashimi reminded me of Big Eye Tuna. It was a bit firmer than yellowtail generally is and had a more intense flavor. Turns out it was the shoulder of the fish, leaner, with the concentrated flavor mollified by the addition of salmon roe.
Some hot dishes followed – this was the pork belly, sitting on a bed of jalapeno cornbread with a light crab salad. What, no poached lobster and foie gras to make this even more ridiculously decadent? This dish was sweet, savory, rich and a textural delight.
The menu, which I perused briefly before handing it back to our server, said these were beef skewers, braised 5 hours and served in a horseradish mayo. What it didn’t say is that the cut of meat is beef tongue. Beef tongue happens to be one of my favorite cuts – it wasn’t always so until I ate it one day without knowing what it was. I remember that I had never had any cut of beef so flavorful and tender, yet with full body, zero mushiness and not a bit of tendon or gristle. These skewers had all of the above with pretty basic seasoning of salt and pepper and a hint of allspice. I’d love to say this was one of the best things we had all night, and it was, until the next dish…
This Duck confit bao (steamed buns) with a sweet and slightly sour orange chili glaze, jalapenos, mint leaves and fresh veggies was really a Banh Mi in disguise. Oh, yeah, Chef. I can see what you’re doing here. This is Clark Kent kind of stuff – peel back the glasses, shirt and tie and you’ve got some superpower food going on underneath the mild mannered looking presentations. Chef gave a little smile and acknowledged as much – sometimes chefs have to get tricky to get people to eat some really cool stuff by making it look and taste like dishes that are familiar. What’s next…do we open the tunnel and let the Choo-Choo train spoonful of peas chug right in?
Remember that time when the obvious wasn’t so obvious? As elegant and sophisticated as his offerings look, Chef Rob seems to be the master of simplicity, turning elements that are available at almost any sushi joint in town into unique flavor and texture combinations. This offering gave the term “layering” a whole new meaning. Two nigiri servings of New Zealand Salmon, one topped with uni and the other topped with scallop, both wrapped in shiso, but with the different texture and size of the leaf on each having a completely different impact. Then there was the scallop, topped with uni, sitting in a bed of house dynamite sauce or, maybe it was spiced mayo – at this point, I wasn’t keeping track. I could barely see through the tears of joy welling up in my eyes. “Why isn’t everyone doing this?” I sniffled. I hope Chef was smiling with me and not at me.
“You like Poke,” Chef asks? “Depends on who’s making it,” I respond. I wasn’t trying to be coy. It seems like no one can leave a classic, traditional, simple dish alone these days. Poke equals fresh tuna, sesame oil, sea salt, and maybe a bit of soy sauce and crunchy seaweed. Some creative license is okay, but not to the point that it’s not recognizable as poke anymore. Hold on while I put my soapbox back in the closet.
Anyway, traditional poke is pretty much what Chef served us, with the addition of a bit of fresh orange and some togarashi for interest, the two of which gave that play of lightly sweet and spicy, which equals flavor with balance. The avocado, well, there aren’t too many things that wouldn’t benefit from the addition of the texture of fresh, creamy and smooth avocado with a mild taste that allows the essence of whatever it is combined with to shine. This was simply done, beautifully plated and every ingredient made sense.
Dessert for us on sushi night always ends with oysters and uni, when they’re available. This was a special request by us. Chef accommodated by tossing together some uni, a quail egg, a dash of togarashi, sweet sake, housemade ponzu, a smear of fresh ground Oregon wasabi, and, voila, we had a great, palate cleansing dessert.
Here’s the Rundown on The Land and Water Company:
The Land and Water Company is nestled on the lower level Southwest corner in the Carlsbad Village Faire shopping center. Parking is a bear during peak hours, but can be found on the streets in the area, resulting in a 5-10 minute walk down well traveled sidewalks. We found out from some neighbors during the meal that there is valet for $6, but we had bypassed the parking lot altogether and ne’er saw it. Keep in mind that, with tourist season coming up, reservations might be a good idea. The place was pretty packed when we went and Chef told us it was about 40% of peak summer capacity.
Service was exceptional from greeting to farewell. The staff was well-trained and could often be seen consulting personally with Chef regarding any questions that arose during the evening. Empty plates seemingly disappeared into thin air and we had infinity glasses full of water that never dipped beneath half full.
Cuisine – This restaurant is best described as an Izakaya, specializing as much in small plates as in sushi. The prepared and warm foods are delightful, thoughtfully prepared and shareable. The vibe is completely Americana pub style, in my opinion, with plenty of walk in room at the sushi bar. The traditional Japanese style offerings provide a burst of exotic, but recognizable flavors to western tastebuds. That doesn’t mean there was any compromise on the quality, flavor or preparation of the ingredients, but that the simplistic approach and combination of spices and seasonings leaned ever so slightly westerly.
Leave yourself a bit of wallet room here. Average cost per diner, with drinks, should be from $30 – $60. However, as you work your way through the small plate menu, you may get so caught up in the flavors, presentations and smooth service, you find yourself ordering one, two and three more things, ’cause the thought of ending the meal is unbearable. Enjoy, and, Cheers, my friends!
2978 Carlsbad Boulevard, #110
Carlsbad, CA 92008