Oceanside's Davin Waite is known for his creative cuisine
OCEANSIDE — When Davin Waite opened his tiny, irreverently named sushi bar the Wrench & Rodent Seabasstropub in South Oceanside in 2013, it was done mostly as a lark.
Situated in a small side room of Greg Lukasiewicz’s Bull Taco shop at 1815 South Coast Highway, the rent and seating in the space were low enough that Waite could afford to experiment and let his imagination run wild.
But a surprising thing happened. Chefs and food writers talked up Waite’s out-of-the-box creativity like crazy and before long, diners were driving from as far as L.A. to sample items like his Kentucky fried tuna heads and fish sperm chowder. Lines would form out the door and Waite’s staff had a hard time keeping up with demand.
So when Lukasiewicz decided last fall to relocate his Oceanside taco shop, Waite and his wife, Jessica, decided to take over the 100-seat space. Last week, they opened The Whet Noodle, a Japanese izakaya (pub) that specializes in ramen dishes. It is operating side by side with the sushi bar Waite affectionately calls “The Rodent.”
While the Whet Noodle’s opening menu is small and conservative by Waite’s standards, he promises to gradually introduce daily specials to please his always adventurous fans. First up? Duck-fat roasted organic carrots with walnut chimichurri.
Around San Diego, Waite is known as a “chef’s chef.” Within the industry, he’s widely respected for his sushi-making skill, commitment to quality local products, sustainable seafood and zero waste. And because he’s known as a culinary artist, friends say he’s the only guy in town who can get away with running a successful restaurant named after a rat.
Waite, 37, said the kooky name was inspired by his bi-national upbringing in England, where rural pubs often have bizarre and amusing names. He said spending so much of his youth in his parents’ native country shaped his food philosophy.
Waite was born just a few days after his parents moved to Southern California from Northeast England for work. (His father, a chemist turned computer designer, is now nearing retirement at Qualcomm.)
Waite and his brother Loren, now 33, split their childhoods between San Diego and England, where their aunt ran a pub. From a young age, the brothers developed a taste for, and passion for preparing, international cuisine, be it Indian curry or beans on burnt toast.
After high school, Waite studied psychology but secretly dreamed of becoming a chef. He landed a job making California rolls at a local sushi bar, then while attending college in Santa Barbara in 1996, he dropped out to become a full-time apprentice to a Japanese sushi chef.
From 1999 to 2004, he refined his techniques in the kitchen at La Jolla’s Café Japengo, then he and his brother and friends opened their own business, the short-lived The Fish Joint at Hill Street Coffeehouse in Oceanside.
After that, he worked as a food industry consultant helping food inventors bring products to market. It paid well, but he missed cooking. So when Lukasiewicz offered him the side space at Bull Taco in early 2013, he jumped at the opportunity.
“It was lucrative but not creative. The whole experience inspired me to find my passion and it reaffirmed my commitment to doing what I love,” he said. “Sometimes you push the limits and you fall down and skin your knees, but at least I’m doing something new. If you’re not taking chances, where’s the fun in that?”
The Rodent’s name and gritty biker bar design reflects Waite’s sense of humor and honesty.
The Whet Noodle
Hours: 4-9 p.m. Mondays. 4 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays
Where: 1815 S. Coast Highway, Oceanside
“I don’t believe in being fake. If I had white guys in Japanese sushi coats and menus in Japanese, that would be fake. I’m an English kid who grew up in Southern California with Mexican friends,” he said.
Waite is an outspoken advocate for “nose-to-tail” dining, a common international style of cooking that uses all of the fish or animal, including organs, bones and skin. One of his favorite past dishes at The Rodent is sausage made from fish egg sac casing.
“I liked taking the items that other people throw away and turning them into the best things. You take something that sounds gross and tie it back to comfort food and people like it,” he said.
Waite said he and his wife came up with the idea for a ramen bar because there weren’t any in the Oceanside area and he frequently found himself driving down after work to San Diego’s ramen Mecca: Convoy Street.
“I never meant to compete with Convoy, because I can’t, but I thought we could do something up here that people would like. Plus, a ramen bar is a natural extension of what we’re doing at The Rodent.”
The new restaurant, like The Rodent, is only open now for dinner service beginning at 4 p.m. daily. Sometime this spring, The Whet Noodle will open for lunch as well, and will offer some grab-and-go sushi items from the Rodent kitchen.
The Whet Noodle menu features a variety of hot and cold shareable appetizers, like scallops, calamari and, soon, fried sweetbread nuggets. Waite has developed two ramen broths. There’s a hot and sour miso broth made with vegetable stock that’s vegan and gluten-free, and there’s a duck shoyu stock, made with the slow-smoked duck meat that is a signature Rodent dinner entrée. The noodles are being made to order – “crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside” – with a firm tofu from San Diego Soy Dairy.
Waite said he’s enjoying creating new recipes and he and his wife have been surprised at initial turnout, since they didn’t advertise their opening and don’t have any signs up on the building yet.
Best of all, Waite said he’s now able to work again side by side with his brother and the friends who he started The Fish Joint with back in 2004.
“I’m having a blast as a line cook again and this is like the final link for me in putting the old gang back together again.”