Through the power of social networking, I got an invitation to the soft opening of Oceanaire , at Fifth and Walnut downtown. It’s been on the verge of being open for months– I’ve walked by and seen the bar, for example, looking like all it needed was a bartender and some liquor and it would be ready for business– but it officially opens tomorrow, May 31. My disclaimer is this: the meal, except for the drinks, was at no charge. The drink proceeds went to charity– which was nice!
It is corporate– there are sixteen locations (Thanks, Kevin!), the closest one being Indianapolis, which means a couple of things. One, it’s not my normal, “small chain at the most” fare, and two, they have incredible buying power. I was told by the general manager that my fish was swimming less than 24 hours ago. That’s pretty cool, considering how far inland we are. They also have agreements with tons of fishermen– including the Deadliest Catch’s boat, Time Bandit. You can buy crab legs, about $50 a pound, from crabs caught on TV. Oh, what a world (though I admit that’s kinda cool).
The restaurant itself is pretty– very neo-art deco, and is supposed to feel like a 1930s ocean liner. The walls are pale, the banquettes dark leather, and dark wood abounds. The bathrooms are a trip– I made Terry take a picture in the men’s room.
Brylcreem and Old Spice. How very retro.
Alright, you’re not here to read about the bathroom, you want to know about the food. So here goes.
We started out with drinks– a Patronarita (good, balanced, not too sweet) and an Au Kurant Affair (cherry, currant, sweet and refreshing). They then brought some sourdough bread and a relish tray containing the best pickled herring I’ve ever had. My grandmother would laugh at me– according to her, it was German tradition to eat pickled herring at midnight on New Year’s, to bring good luck. I thought it was gross. This was great– fresh, less pickled-tasting and more ceviche-tasting– and not reminiscent of the stuff my grandma got at the grocery store. Good, good stuff. The rest of the relish tray was crudite– olives, carrots, cucumbers– and was nice and refreshing.
The chef also sent out an amuse bouche– cured salmon and mustard on top of puff pastry. Yum.
For appetizers, we chose the halibut cheeks and softshell crab. The halibut cheeks were great– breaded lightly, very sweet and tender, and the mango vinagrette served with the accompanying slaw was delicious: well balanced tart and sweet and not heavy at all. I could have made a meal out of it.
I have never had softshell crab before, and I’ll be honest– I couldn’t get past the texture, which was just odd to me. Terry, however, assured me that it was downright heavenly. It was served on a bed of watercress and garnished with a tomatillo vinaigrette.
The kitchen, as is the case at a soft opening, was a touch slow, so the waiter brought out a mixed baby green salad with pistachio goat cheese, pickled watermelon, and serrano-lime vinaigrette. This was one of those perfect salad experiences– you get a bite of each component and it just works beautifully together. The salt of the nuts, creaminess of the cheese, spice of the vinaigrette and sweet tang of the pickled watermelon were great.
For our entrees, I chose one of the chef’s specialties. According to the waiter, this is where each location’s chefs get to experiment with ingredients, including a few local ones, like Mt. Carmel beer. This chef seemed to want to play with some spice– there was a lot of blackening and sriracha on the menu. I ended up getting the Black and Bleu Costa Rican Mahi-Mahi. Oceanaire gives you two grilling options: dirty, which is blackened, and angry, which is dirty with some extra spice, citrus, scallions and sriracha. The Mahi-Mahi was served dirty, on a bed of exquisitely sweet caramelized onions, topped with Roquefort butter. It was beautifully presented, moist, and very fresh– as fresh as I’d tasted at good restaurants in Hawaii. The spice and the sweet went together very well, and I would love some more of the Roquefort butter. Mmm.
Terry got the surf and turf– a 1 1/4 pound lobster, served “angry” and a filet, rare. We thought the steak was going to come out “angry” (ordering your steak “rare and angry” sounds sort of funny), but instead, the lobster did. The steak was perfectly cooked (a rarity at a seafood place), and the lobster was sweet and spicy at the same time. This surf and turf was not inexpensive– $59– but worth it.
Every item is a la carte, so we were permitted to pick two sides. First was grilled summer squash, which was nicely seasoned with tarragon and butter. The second was King Crab mac-and-cheese, which sounded really good, but was in reality a bit dry and not nearly as creamy as I thought it might be. Each of these sides could easily feed 2-3 people. Sadly, they had no take-out boxes so we couldn’t take any of it home. The mac-and-cheese might’ve been better the next day– most dishes like that are.
For dessert, we ended up with baked Alaska (or really, bombe Alaska). The meringue on this was flambeed tableside, which was impressive, but the meringue doesn’t brown as evenly as it would if it were actually baked, nor does the meringue become firm. It was novel, but I’d probably try something different. Oh, and the darn thing feeds four. It was huge, and we left half.
In all: you get what you pay for. With drinks, the meal would have topped out at about $200 for both of us. You’re paying for ultra-fresh fish, flown in and butchered on site. You’re also paying for almost overwhelming service– the waiter was attentive and incredibly knowledgeable (they had two weeks of intensive training, and he knew every flavor on the menu), and the bussing staff cleared plates promptly, but not quite unassumingly. If you love seafood, you will definitely like this place.