The importance of first impressions is the stuff of advertising slogans and books about business motivation and self-improvement. Wrench and Rodent Seabasstropub is the exception that proves that rule. "Rodents" hardly sound appetizing and "wrenches" play no meaningful role in high-end cuisine, but Davin Waite's food at this Oceanside hole-in-the-wall (1815 S. Coast Hwy.) not only pleases; it astonishes.
Take the swordfish-belly pastrami. Ordinarily, pastrami is smoked, brine-cured (corned) beef. Waite elevates the idea by substituting luscious, fatty swordfish belly for the more common beef brisket. The result is a slightly smoky, rich, impossibly moist and ever-so-slightly sweet product that reminds nearly as much of lardo—Italian cured pork fatback—as pastrami. Waite pairs this extraordinary product with a berry sauce that echoes the fileno al mirtilio (steak with blueberry sauce) at Acqua al Due in Florence (and the Gaslamp), picking up on the sweet notes of the swordfish without veering into overtly sugary. It's a terrific and stunningly beautiful dish that maintains perfect balance.
Waite's "Korean barbecue" of yellowtail forced me to see the cooked version of hamachi in a new light. It was the accompaniments, though, that took the dish over the top: the bits of bacon that highlighted the rich flavors of the fish, the onions cooked al dente and green beans that were nothing short of spectacular, both in flavor and texture. The vegetables were treated with the same level of respect as the fish.
It's tempting to conceptualize Wrench & Rodent in sushi-bar terms (Waite came to note at Café Japengo in University City), but doing so risks invoking misleading paradigms: either traditional Edomai strictures or off-the-rails "fusion" masquerading as "sushi." Waite's sushi is neither.
Traditional garnishes for albacore include finely chopped scallions and minced daikon with ponzu. Waite instead opens the modernist-cuisine playbook and pairs albacore nigiri with an agar-based gel flavored with ghost pepper and orange and garnished with micro herbs. While that might seem like a significant departure, it's less so when considering that agar comes from kelp and sushi chefs have long used pickled kelp as a garnish for mackerel. Waite found an innovative way to do the same thing with the citrus and chile, providing a flavor profile that recalls the model.
Similarly, a garnish of arugula chimichurri—hardly traditional—plays perfectly with the spectacularly fresh local yellowtail, cutting through its fatty richness without overpowering it. Our first course, a nigiri of New Zealand salmon, arrived at the table with a garnish that looked like minced daikon but turned out to be a ginger rock paste. The surprising sweetness and slight bite of ginger forced us to look at the salmon in a different way.
Ultimately, one important clue as to what's going on at Wrench & Rodent is the soundtrack: punk rock. Waite rips apart Japanese-inflected seafood, breaks it down to its most fundamental parts and puts them back together in a way that highlights their essence. Punk rock is on the walls, on the soundtrack and, ultimately, on the plate.
Perhaps that ought to have been the takeaway from the first impression.