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Walk Into Sushi Blue, the sushi bar in Blue Lake Casino in the small town of Blue Lake, and no questions are necessary. Chef Jacob Talbert knows. Plate after plate emerges from behind the counter, omakase-style, chef's choice. Roughly translated, it means, "I trust you."

There is a small plate of bluefin belly, fresh and flavorful and all the rage in Japan. Then come the Hokkaido scallops, halved, lightly torched and swaddled in local albacore, then topped with citrus aioli and finished with ponzu. Our favorite ends up being the tempura nori topped with spicy tuna, avocado slices, a sweet soy reduction, wasabi aioli, micro greens and fresh jalapeño.

The tuna tostadas are up there with the best raw fish appetizers in the county and they've won the Arcata Bay Oyster Festival's award for Best Non-Oyster, proving it. That's how sushi master Talbert rolls.

Talbert's passion for seafood traces back to his youth in Virginia, where he fished commercially with his grandfather and learned to prepare seafood in myriad ways. By the time the Blue Lake Rancheria Tribe started recruiting him to take over its sushi bar in the Blue Lake Casino four years ago, he had worked at eight sushi establishments across Virginia, Hawaii and California. Some of them he helped open, including Eikos Sushi Bar in Napa, the Dolphin Poipu in Kauai and Rocket Sushi in Sonoma.

click to enlarge The Rock it Roll is made with tempura shrimp and cucumber topped with yellowfin tuna, avocado, jalapeños and a citrus aioli, which is seared with a torch and served with herb oil. - PHOTO BY MARK MCKENNA
  • Photo by Mark McKenna
  • The Rock it Roll is made with tempura shrimp and cucumber topped with yellowfin tuna, avocado, jalapeños and a citrus aioli, which is seared with a torch and served with herb oil.

Over the years, Talbert had spent time vacationing in Humboldt County with his family. His wife got her master's degree at Cal Poly Humboldt and they had often toyed with the idea of living here. But when he visited the Blue Lake Casino to see if it might be a fit, Talbert felt unsure.

The management had little experience with Japanese cuisine, he remembers. The casino atmosphere wasn't ideal and the sushi bar had art on the walls from Thailand and Bali. "That made no sense," Talbert says. It was clear, though, that this was why the Blue Lake Rancheria, which owns the casino and hotel, wanted to hire him. To come in and make it better. Talbert decided to go for it.

click to enlarge Chef Talbert behind the counter; the Tuna Tostada gets a finishing touch - PHOTO BY MARK MCKENNA
  • Photo by Mark McKenna
  • Chef Talbert behind the counter; the Tuna Tostada gets a finishing touch

The first thing he did was change the name from Alice's Steakhouse and Sushi to Sushi Blue, in honor of the Blue Lake location and the sea. He put his own Japanese art on the walls and began showing videos of fishing Humboldt's waters, rolling sushi and mountain biking local trails on screens above the bar. Most importantly, he revamped the entire menu.

Sushi Blue is now Talbert's baby and arguably the best sushi restaurant in the county. Residents travel from distant corners of Humboldt to feast on his innovative fusion fare. The fundamentals — perfectly cooked rice, traditional sauces, sustainable fish and local produce — are his jumping off points, Talbert says. But from there, he likes to play with his food.

click to enlarge Talbert sears the Butterfish Carpaccio with a torch before adding sweetie drop peppers to finish the dish - PHOTO BY MARK MCKENNA
  • Photo by Mark McKenna
  • Talbert sears the Butterfish Carpaccio with a torch before adding sweetie drop peppers to finish the dish

"With my flavor profiles, a lot of it is very fusion-y," he says. "A lot of that fusion comes from places I've lived like Hawaii and Sonoma, where I've taken ideas from things that I've eaten and really enjoyed, intertwining those to make fun sashimi and sushi rolls."

Some of Talbert's most eclectic rolls are also his most popular. For instance, the Curry Me combines lightly torched butterfish, shrimp tempura, mango, cucumber, jalapeño, avocado, coconut curry sauce, eel sauce and sweetie drop peppers from Peru. Then there's the Caprese Roll, which was inspired by the gardens he kept while living in Sonoma and Napa.

"I had a ton of basil, a ton of tomatoes, peppers, all this stuff," he says. "I would come to work with all of these ingredients trying to figure out how to interlace them into sushi." Eventually he created a sushi topping of Hawaiian or local albacore, avocado and a cherry tomato salad with basil, garlic and citrus aioli, and found it went best over a roll with snow crab, goat cheese and cucumber.

click to enlarge Talbert breaks down some Hawaiian albacore as he preps for service. - PHOTO BY MARK MCKENNA
  • Photo by Mark McKenna
  • Talbert breaks down some Hawaiian albacore as he preps for service.

Talbert is also big on izakaya fare, the eclectic dishes at Japanese gastropubs. His most popular izakaya-inspired appetizers are the Japanese Buffalo wings, which are essentially shrimp wrapped in scallops, all deep fried, with a sweet and spicy Asian-style wing sauce. The idea for the unusual dish came to Talbert in a dream. He often has food inspiration dreams, he says, but sometimes nightmares, too. For instance, he's trying to make sushi rolls but his knife is broken, or the order ticket machine won't stop printing tickets.

In reality, of course, things rarely go wrong at Sushi Blue. The tribe has been so pleased with Talbert that just before the pandemic, it sent him to Japan on a two-week research and development mission. He traveled through Tokyo, Kyoto and beyond, spending long hours observing sushi masters, ducking beneath glowing lanterns into little izakayas and eating ramen every day.

By the end of the year, Sushi Blue will have expanded to a larger, adjacent space with more than double the number of tables. Instead of sharing a kitchen with the Alice's Restaurant next door, Sushi Blue will have its own kitchen, enabling new back-of-the-house items. Talbert can't wait to start playing with noodle dishes and exploring another one of his passions. "We're planning on having ramen because I love ramen," he says.

When it shows up on the menu, we trust it'll be good.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MARK MCKENNA
  • Photo by Mark McKenna
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