When Sea Fresh Seafood opened four years ago, it was so small the counter and the fish display case took up most of the room. As I remember, there was only one table. The food came on paper plates.
And everything was as fresh as a dip in a mountain stream. It was the kind of place where the owners made you feel both that you must have been very clever to have discovered it and that your arrival had made their day.
As it turned out, we were not the only ones to discover the little seafood gem of Ojai. Soon the restaurant was such a success that they took over the ice cream and video store next door, remodeled it in ship-shape blue and white and put in lots of wooden booths and outdoor tables. They opened a branch in Ventura. They even added a sushi bar.
A sushi bar in the middle of the hot, landlocked Ojai Valley? Fear not. The owners of Sea Fresh operate their own commercial fishing boat out of Ventura Harbor and have the pick of their own fresh fish. (Though all the sushi is fresh, not all the fish is local; it's a good idea to check with the waitress.)
On a recent visit to the restaurant, we took three of my daughter's high school friends. I would have shuddered had I known that they were going to feast on sushi and then follow it up with a tableful of fried fish. But the dinner, like all of our meals at Sea Fresh, was fine.
Of course, I love taking teen-agers out to dinner. "Is your sushi reliable?" one of them asked our waitress. Another tried to get her friend to try tofu for the first time, from the fairly standard (but appealingly hot) miso soup. She succeeded in ramming it down her victim's throat and then complained, "No fair, you entirely bypassed your taste buds!"
A great big platter of assorted sushi made a good appetizer for everyone (except the unwilling tofu-taster). I particularly liked the yellowtail roll, sliced quite thin, with its delicate little spears of cucumber and crisp sunflower sprouts. The tab was reasonable; there's nothing over $3 at the sushi bar.
Since the locally caught fish is so fresh, it's also wonderful fried. Sea Fresh has a big selection of fish and chips with thin, crisp batter that could--or should--make English fish and chips lovers weep. (I'm surprised they don't put bottles of English vinegar on the tables along with the ketchup. But then these aren't English-style chips, either; they're big potatoey wedges rather than ordinary fries.) The calamari are an eye-opener, nice and tender.
They also fry their zucchini in great big slices, and really do them justice, although they're sprinkled, improbably, with Parmesan cheese. I had the zucchini with herbed, baked ahi , which came with an interesting brown sauce, very tart, like a buttery reduced sauce.
My biggest disappointment at Sea Fresh is simply that I've never had their ceviche; every time I go there, they've run out of it. I have had the creamy clam chowder, which is the standard thick variety my husband loves. The steamed clams in an oregano-flavored broth had a nice countrified taste.
One of the teen-agers ordered a fish taco. The fish was fried in small pieces and served on a thin corn tortilla with lettuce and cheese and salsa. I thought it was quite good and at $1.60, it was close to a perfect, light meal all by itself.
The teen-agers decided that this was a great place. I think it taught them a good marketing lesson too: that if you provide the freshest food and make it easy to enjoy, you can be successful.
* THE DETAILS: Sea Fresh Seafood, 533 E. Ojai Ave., Ojai; (805) 646-7747. Beer and wine. Parking lot. Lunch and dinner 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; sushi bar 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5:30-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday. MasterCard, Visa. Dinner for two, food only, $11-$28.