Sea Fresh
3550 S. Harbor Blvd.
$4.95 – $26.95

In 2005, a devastating fire at the end of Marine Emporium Landing in Channel Islands Harbor destroyed both the fish market and its adjacent Sea Fresh Restaurant. Sadly, one of the best places to purchase fresh local seafood (or eat it right there) seemed gone forever. Fortunately, the restaurant and market have now reopened in a comfortable, friendly and welcoming rebuilt and redesigned location. And once again harbor visitors and residents can enjoy Sea Fresh’s great food and freshly caught daily offerings.

I always enjoyed the Sea Fresh New England clam chowder; just as in Maine coast shanty restaurants, the chowder here is creamy thick, loaded with clams, potatoes, herbs and lots of bay leaf. They also offer Manhattan chowder and a great cioppino, but I like the traditional chowder so well that I rarely order any other soup. One can also start with a mixed green salad, or the particularly tasty field greens with cranberry and walnuts; or if you are adventurous, go for the Boat of Bullets appetizer: jalapeño stuffed with ahi tuna, cream cheese and pineapple, served with an aioli dipping sauce.

One terrific aspect of the newly designed restaurant is the amount of outside dining space. Just to the right of the entrance is a large dining area (and an outside pool table!), and alongside the bar and the main dining room are numerous deckside tables overlooking the many boats docked at Channel Islands Harbor. I’ve seen people who just come in for a quick drink, and then have a shrimp cocktail (either jumbo or bay) and then decide to stay for dinner.

The bar is always crowded and appears to have become quite the harbor cocktail destination watering hole. Of course, the Friday and Saturday late-night (9-11 p.m.) happy hour prices certainly invite the crowds.

Sushi is a popular Sea Fresh choice for many bar patrons and restaurant diners as well.  I’ve always liked Chris’ famous garlic tuna roll (crab, avocado, cucumber, sprouts and rice inside topped with ahi tuna and seared garlic). Also quite tasty is the Hollywood Beach Roll: hot and cold tuna, salmon, sun-dried tomatoes, avocado, cucumber and rice on the inside, and topped with yellowtail, jalapeños and ponzu — a wickedly good and filling combination (also the most expensive roll at $13.95). The freshness of the fish bodes well for the many sushi and sashimi selections.

It is a bit confusing for the uninitiated how the restaurant seating works. One enters through the bar area, and then either finds a table (and saves the spot) or goes directly to the ordering area through the restaurant on the left, make your selection, and then go back and sits at the table where a buser/server brings the order.  The servers are very attentive and the food arrives rapidly and to order; it seems the elimination of traditional wait staff doesn’t affect prompt and friendly serving attention.

On my most recent visit to Sea Fresh, I ordered the daily special: breaded scallops with a jalapeño aioli, served with mashed potatoes, steamed broccoli, carrots and zucchini. The giant scallops were absolutely perfectly cooked, melt-in-your-mouth tender, and the sauce had just enough ping to flavor, without overwhelming the shellfish essence.

The vegetables were al dente and obviously cooked just before serving, and the mashed potatoes were also freshly made and delicious; this may be harbor dining, but the attention to taste and preparation is very apparent.

My dining companion ordered fish and chips; the fries were perfectly cooked and the batter on the fish was light and crispy (my guess is, they use a tempura recipe for the coating); the fact that I had to beg for a tiny bite is proof of how satisfied he was with his selection. My wee bite was indeed very, very good.

There is also a Sea Fresh Restaurant in Ojai (which is also always crowded and filled with happy diners).  In fact, the Ojai restaurant was the first to open in 1985, but the market part of the operation began years before when owner Bill Sutton launched his first commercial fishing boat in 1977. (Sea Fresh’s owner Chris is Bill’s son, and Bill’s wife Mayra’s brother Gus manages the Ojai restaurant.)  This family-run business manages to keep the simple yet delicious taste and feel of enjoying a home-cooked meal.

I’ve yet to make it down to the harbor for breakfast. The menu looks appetizing, if somewhat ordinary, but certainly reasonable and no doubt typically well prepared, like all the other dishes I’ve tried at Sea Fresh. It is not surprising so many people do venture to Channel Islands Harbor and Sea Fresh restaurant to savor the best of our local fresh seafood cuisine.