As usual, I was late.
Not because I’m usually late but because whenever there’s food hanging in the balance, time seems to swivel uncontrollably and with offbeat measure, no outfit is ever cool enough for the meal I’m about to consume, (as if the shrimp tempura is really judging my vintage James Dean tee).
Early evening last Thursday, sun warbling low in the sky, I followed the sidewalk along Lafayette Avenue, a slim road on Balboa Peninsula edging Newport Bay, and just before it twisted into a wide, wooden bridge across the water, I arrived at the lofty structure that is Cannery Seafood of the Pacific—better known by Newport Beach locals as simply, The Cannery.
The building is a large, two-story thing painted butternut-squash yellow, on its surface a series of undulating metal slats with “The Cannery Restaurant” written across a few of the top ones in old-timey, stylish lettering. Except its aura of swanky obsolescence isn’t mere style; the classic-but-cool vibe of this Southern California mainstay is 100% authentic.
Tale as old as 1921, The Cannery was once Newport Beach’s very first commercial fish cannery and a lively hub for fishing-boat activity, just as it still is today. On August 1, 1966, The Cannery briefly closed and soon after reopened into what the restaurant describes as “a kind of Montmartre by the sea where tourists and artists could gather.”
Then 1973 saw The Cannery rebuilt from makeshift Parisian salon into eclectic eatery by a man called Bill Hamilton. The story goes Billy—can I call him that?—sold the place 26 years after his self-initiated Cannery renaissance to a Newport Beach resident who vowed he’d preserve its historic panache. Eventually, keys to The Cannery were placed into longtime Southern California restauranteur Ron Salisbury’s able hands and ever since, he’s been steering the seafood-faring ship.
Now change is once again blowing through the time-tested landmark along the shore; three months ago sushi chef Mark J. Cruz was tapped to join the team and add his singular flare for edible artistry to the popular menu. As luck of the edamame bean would have it, Cruz worked at The Cannery a decade before and returns after years of study in the art of sushi to take his cut at raw fish in a whole new way.
There’s a saying that goes, “Lead with passion and you’ll always win,” (or something similar to that collection of inspiring words because I actually made this particular one up), and to sit at Chef Cruz’s sushi lair, plates of his tiny, savory masterpieces placed before you one by one, as if on a conveyer belt made from magic and bluefin tuna belly, is to experience passion at its most transformative. His cuisine can only be described as a synchronicity of the simple, unexpected and refined.
The energy Cruz exudes is undeniable, perhaps a byproduct of his compelling past. Born in the Philippines, he arrived to the United States an interior aircraft mechanic, (thus solving the mystery of the structural eloquence of his creations), but passion, as earlier mentioned, can be a funny beast and carried him straight from the inside of an airplane to the interior of a kitchen. It was there he began his lifelong meditation in sushi. Taught mostly by the husband of another Cannery chef—Cruz calls this man a “pioneer”—the burgeoning sushi master spent the better part of ten years learning everything there was to know about the Japanese cuisine. Today, he puts his deeply culled culinary experience to work on the blank plate.
“Three months ago I had a dream, woke up at 5 a.m. and told my wife, ‘I’m going to run the show,’” he told me, before doling out a piece of scorched squid then this piece of enlightened wisdom, which confirmed my aforementioned theory: “Passion makes the sushi.”
I was at this very moment in our conversation sitting at the upper floor of The Cannery, a dark, bohemian rhapsody of a space set to the tune of glowing, faux jellyfish that dangle from the ceiling, and the chatter of eager patrons who fill every chair as they always do when happy hour at The Cannery comes calling. (An important side note to anyone visiting Newport Beach: This place has the undisputed best happy hour in town.)
“Most of theses dishes are from our secret menu,” explains Chef Cruz, setting a platter of expertly cut mackerel before me. In a night that can only be described as an eight-course symphony of sushi, this was to be his final refrain. “But you can order any of them,” he says. “If you know.”