Sushi Marina is the least Japanese-looking Japanese restaurant I've ever been in. Outside it's a beige stucco bunker; inside, the restaurant is covered with shingles--even the awning over the sushi bar has been shingled. Add some skylights and hanging plants, and you have a place that could pass for a hip California bar, '60s style.
In the middle of the week, the restaurant had the bouncy atmosphere of a Friday-night happy hour. Waitresses in tank tops and butcher aprons zipped around at top speed. And although we had to wipe crumbs off our seats, we soon got caught up in the pleasant rhythm of the place.
Miso soup, hot and hearty, appears at the table along with the menus. Listed are the kinds of Japanese dishes even unsophisticated American palates would like--certainly they are dishes kids would love.
I was delighted with the soft-shelled crab. It arrived with a sprinkling of dried bonita that sat tangled on the hot shell like Medusa's hair. The crab legs were crisp, crunchy and delicate. And the center was extra tender. The crab came with a lemon sauce.
The salmon-skin salad, which consisted mostly of cucumbers and a tiny shred of salmon skin, was a disappointment at $5. But the seaweed salad at half that price was quite nice. The seaweed was lightly pickled and served on a mound of crisp lettuce.
Tempura made a grand entrance on a huge platter. The vegetables were outsize, too. The onions seemed as big around as saucers. The batter was crisp and somewhat sticky. It tasted good at first, but ultimately became too greasy--it's best to eat fast.
Teriyaki beef was as good as it gets, mainly because of the fine flavor of the beef. Beef sukiyaki was also satisfying, essentially a sweet onion soup with thin slices of beef, rice and glass noodles.
Of course, with a name like Sushi Marina, the sushi shouldn't take a back seat to the rest of the menu. It doesn't. When I eat sushi I order tuna first and see if I like the color. Here it was just the right shade of rose pink and as tender as butter.
The sushi rolls had wonderful sunflower sprouts that made a plateful of them look like a lush little garden. There were a few rolls here I had never before tried. The Alaska roll was similar to a California roll but made with cooked salmon instead of crab. I found I liked Alaska better than California. I can't imagine what they would make of the Philly roll in Tokyo--it's an Alaska roll with cream cheese--but the flavor of the sesame seeds and the salmon certainly brought lox and bagels to my mind.
Two other remarkable rolls were the sunset dragon roll (sea eel with an amazing outer wrapping of perfectly textured avocado slices) and the rainbow roll, eight kinds of fish wrapped around a California roll--definitely one to share.
* WHERE AND WHEN: Sushi Marina, 120 S. California St., Ventura; (805) 643-5200. Lunch Monday through Friday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; dinner Monday through Sunday 5:30-10 p.m. Sake, wine and beer. Street parking. MasterCard, Visa. Dinner for two, food only, $22-$62.50.