Sushi Marina
120 S. California St.  

It’s funny to think that just three decades ago there were only a couple of places around here to eat sushi; one of these was the then-new Sushi Marina in Ventura. What was once a pioneering restaurant in the region now fits in among many of its kind; and as of the end of 2012, it’s now another restaurant with new ownership and a new menu.

Gone are the dozens of pinned-up papers scrawled with off-menu “specials” and the pencil-in ordering tickets. Those have been replaced by a large triptych of a menu with a lengthy selection of small plate offerings, along with sashimi, rolls, salads and grilled center-of-plate dishes.

Many people will be disappointed to see some former favorites no longer offered. My girlfriend, whose family made a ritual of coming here, seemed to be teetering on the edge of an outburst while her eyes scanned up and down the pages in search of the Red Dragon roll. Luckily, however, that was one of the handful of items preserved in the “Sushi Marina Classics” section of another small menu at the side of the table.

The large appetizer selection nudges you toward approaching your meal like a tapas experience, and that is the way things are served as they come off the sushi bar. There are so many choices, though, that it can be dizzying if you’re indecisive; we had to order sake and baked green mussels so that we could avoid feeling bad about staring at the menu another 10 minutes.

After a few visits, it seems that there is one recurrent theme about all these new choices: the simpler the better. The quality of the fish here is excellent. All the sashimi sampled was great — especially the Japanese scallop. There is nothing to gripe about with regards to freshness. And with that said, the best options here are those that let the ingredients shine through minimal transformation.

For instance, among the starters we chose and loved was the salmon skin salad. Many strips of baked Norwegian salmon skin were tossed with radiccaio, endive and greens and served with sesame ponzu sauce. The result was extra-savory from the crispy skin, but also bright, light and fresh. It was a perfectly balanced appetizer to get you going and I’ll have a hard time passing it up next visit.

The same thing can’t be said about the ahi mahalo salad, however, which suffered from heavy-handedness. With a beautiful presentation of large chunks of ahi and avocado over thin-sliced cucumber, we were pumped when it hit the table. But then we discovered that the bed of cucumber was saturated with a texture-killing and one-note chili cream dressing.

Heavy-handedness also hurt the soft-shell crab with salsa, which had muted flavor from too much tempura batter. Also, the Latin American influence that pops up here doesn’t really work. Salsa with crab? With shishito peppers on the menu, I thought this might be something original that would complement, but nope, it was pico de gallo. And if you’ve never endeavored to eat pico de gallo with chopsticks, let me tell you — you’ll give up.

A great middle ground among the starters was the stuffed avocado, which features half of a deep-fried avocado with spicy tuna and cream cheese in the divot. The crispy tempura shell collapses in your mouth around the melted avocado, giving great textural contrast and buttery richness.

The same dynamic plays out in their sushi rolls, where the best are those on the simpler side. Now, I know that a great deal of sushi restaurants do well serving rolls with creamy sauces and an abundance of tempura; I’m just one who prefers rolls prepared with a lighter sensibility. Luckily for everybody, the choices here are split just about 50-50 along those lines.

Those who like a richer roll would probably enjoy the Malibu roll (which features spicy scallops, tempura, avocado and spicy mayo) or the lobster dynamite roll (which features baked lobster and dynamite sauce over a California roll).

Those who enjoy more subtlety in a roll would be happy with the sashimi roll (which features three kinds of fish rolled in long ribbons of thin-sliced cucumber, plus a tasty mustard sauce) or the moonlight roll (with salmon, shrimp, crab, asparagus and avocado wrapped in cucumber).

Service is good, for the most part. When busy, servers tend to bring food and bolt off before you can order more, but I never felt neglected in the long run.

One thing that’s already drawing some ire online is the price increases. True, miso is no longer free, and rolls (besides small, simple ones) tend to be $12 to $14. But that’s the higher end of average these days, and the most expensive rolls either have no rice or incorporate soy paper (which is usually an up-charge), so par for the course.

Not everyone will stomach changes at any local landmark restaurant, but rest assured there’s still plenty to love — and lots to discover — at downtown Ventura’s longtime bastion of Japanese cuisine.