South Seas Sushi navigates troubled, albeit creative, waters (Charleston City Paper)

I kind of wish South Seas Sushi had been themed more like a speakeasy. Don’t get me wrong, the latest expansion of the South Seas Tiki Lounge and broader Oasis project oozes kitschy Asian cuteness. From its high, flowery paper parasol-covered ceiling to the playfully named dishes coming from the “Ooh-Mami Bar,” there’s an inference that a good time will be had here … provided you can find the place.

As part of the former train-depot-turned-restaurant Scarecrow, Feathertop, and Wise-Buck complex, South Seas Sushi is tucked mid-block adjacent to the Children’s Museum, which may explain why there was basically no one in there, even during prime time, on a Saturday night.

However, the semi-secret location may not be the entirety of the issue. The menu is, not surprisingly, sushi-heavy, with a focus on innovative — and even downright strange — fusions. The Big Kahuna roll ($18) is filled with spicy salmon, Asian pear, and green onion, and then topped with avocado, raw salmon slices, and sesame seeds. Although the fish was undeniably fresh, the rice was dry and the overall combination unremarkable.

Similarly, the yellowtail roll ($12) contains cucumber, cilantro, and Asian pear. The apple-like fruit is a bit of a theme, and one that I would personally reconsider as the sweetness consistently dominates. The eight diminutive slices of sushi are individually topped with a dollop of jalapeño mayo, and although it sounded provocative, the net results were disappointingly mundane.

I love the name and general concept behind the Low Crunchy roll ($18). Made with blue crab and fried green tomatoes, the subtle flavors are obscured by the consistently dry rice and smoky XO sauce. Moreover, the portion is exceedingly small for the price point. One could drop a lot of dough at SSS and still leave hungry.

If creativity is what you crave, there is no shortage at South Seas Sushi. The Wheels of Fortune ($16) features two rings of rice — each approximately the size of a donut — individually plated on sheets of nori. The first was garnished with shredded crab stick, avocado slices, and Irish moss. Physically striking, the flavors were too subtle to compete with the quantity of rice. The second, topped with interlocking slices of fresh salmon and more Asian pear, then sprinkled with green onion slices and sriracha mayo would make outstanding Instagram fodder, but flavor-wise was dominated once again by the sweet fruit.

On the small plates side of things, the fried Brussels sprouts ($6) arrive crisp and glistening. Presumably intended as a riff on Mapo Tofu (“Ma Bo Dofu”), the typical notes of broad bean paste, Sichuan peppercorns, and chili oil fall prey to a heavy-handed soy sauce application and the overarching result is thirst.

Perhaps the most successful dish I tried, the shrimp crackle pop ($10) delivers a dozen tempura-battered shrimp piled around a ramekin of sriracha mayo. This would make an ideal accompaniment to some of the restaurant’s relentlessly creative cocktails, like the Jade Garden ($11) made with tequila, coconut, and matcha green tea powder or the MSG ($11), which offers a fanciful mix of maraschino, sake, and gin, along with smoked mushroom and orange bitters. It’s mixology on overdrive, and the sheer originality is impressive.

Meanwhile, service is friendly and attentive, and I followed my waitress’s enthusiastic endorsement of the chicken yakitori ($10). Here, three chunks of white meat chicken are served on skewers and lightly drizzled with teriyaki sauce. The meat was tender and there’s a subtle grill flavor, but the results are rather ordinary.

Similarly, one would be hard-pressed to make a meal of the noodle bowl ($18). Despite being served on a full-size plate, the portion is puny with more blank space than actual food. Yakisoba noodles and bits of smoked short rib are tossed in a cloyingly sweet sauce and topped with six vibrant broccoli florets. It’s another “close, but not quite moment.” A little of the saltiness from the Brussel sprouts and some more generosity with the yakisoba noodles would help tremendously.

Off the beaten path and filled with more staff than patrons, it’s a little hard not to worry about the fate of South Seas Sushi. Yes, shared plates and tapas are all the rage, and the servings here are in tune and adorably tiny. However, they’re also not-filling-your-belly petite, and your wallet’s innards will rumble from hunger upon exit.

At the same time, the cocktails are admirably audacious, and it’s clear the restaurant strives to involve patrons in that spirit of fun. With a little adjustment to portion or price and less focus on Asian pears, this inadvertently underground spot could live up to its clear desire to offer inventive drinks and inspired bites in a playful space.