12002 Carmel Mountain Road, Carmel Mountain
It's easy to love a good fish counter. You get to choose which fish looks best, pick your method of preparation — usually a sandwich or tacos — and opt for the seasoning of your choice. It's a concept so good someone might think to franchise it. But maybe they shouldn't.
Fish District may not be a franchise yet, but it has the feel of one. The first restaurant has been operating in Carlsbad for over a year, and recently a second opened in Carmel Mountain Ranch, right next door to a Pier 1 Imports.
I point this out because it seems like a good match. Like the homogenized "eclectic" tastes of Pier 1 pair well with the food-for-picky-eaters approach Fish District seems to embrace. I don't mean "picky eater" in the way that I'm picky — all I ever want is for my food to taste good. I'm talking about the sort of picky that's literally afraid of certain flavors or ingredients for reasons not owing to allergy or gastrointestinal intolerance. I'm talking about the eater that sides with a five-year-old's palate in elevating Kraft macaroni and cheese to the status of timelessness.
Basically, sugar is the lowest common denominator of the service industry. When in doubt — whether due to a lack of confidence or questionable judgment — a chef can load a dish up with sweetness and rest assured somebody in America is going to accept it. Another safe best is blandness. If a chef tries to make something taste good, he or she runs the legitimate risk of failing, meaning somebody like me is going to come along and kvetch about how overseasoned or unbalanced it turned out to be.
But it turns out there's something worse than the idle critic's pan, and I found it here. Don't get me wrong, the place looks nice enough, and could easily be mistaken, as I said, for a reputable franchise (if such a thing exists). However, while built along the concept of fish counters like Blue Water, PB Fish Shop, or Point Loma Seafoods, it trips up right away with one crucial misstep: no fish counter. You don't get to see the fish you mean to order; rather an eraser board menu telling you what's fresh today.
Okay. I can cope. They do offer an $8 poke rice bowl special that I could not possibly walk away from without trying, especially given the option between ahi and salmon (I went with salmon, of course). Add a litany of fish taco choices and I was hooked. For about 5 bucks I could've had my way with a halibut taco, but with the poke on the way I figured I'd cheap out and go with the house standard, battered cod. For 3 dollars it might give me an idea how their fish and chips played out.
My salmon was sweet. Like, too sweet. Not the fish itself, of course, which was appropriately raw, buttery and tender, but with a poke dressing that seriously detracted from the decent fish. The rice was well made, the ingredients jibed well, but that sweetness killed it. Even in Hawaii, where you'll find grocery aisles filled with cane-sweetened everything, they wouldn't do this to their poke.
The taco suffered from blandness. I doused it with Cholula as much as I could, but while the ingredients could have added up to something, once again they fell short. I suppose if you're eating with children, or really want to enjoy a fish counter but just don't have the gumption, Fish District is a fine starter seafood spot. But for my kind of picky eater — the one into flavor, nuance and trying to make fish good instead of casting a wide net for a statistical range of customers — feel free to skip this one.