Restaurant review: The Oceanaire is a top spot for seafood (3 stars)
What could be more invigorating for a seafood lover than walking into a gleaming restaurant and beholding a gorgeous display of oysters, crab legs and lobsters arrayed on crushed ice along a long, curved, meandering raw bar?
The scene -- at the Oceanaire Seafood Room -- is set for infinitely delicious possibility. Four months ago a new chef, Patrick Riddles, took over the kitchen at the Galleria restaurant, with its inviting booths, white tablecloths, gleaming stemware, a grand staircase leading to a mezzanine. One waiter, white-jacketed and smart, adroitly fillets a Dover sole tableside; another, with a flourish, flambés a baked Alaska.
I stopped in recently for dinner with my husband, and was impressed not just by the ambience, but also with the wide selection of North Atlantic oysters -- including Chincoteague, James River, Pemaquid and more.
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And by the service, some of the most confidently professional I'd been treated to in a while. There was no "have you dined with us before" nonsense, no pushing us to choose an appetizer before we could take in the menu. Our thoughtful waiter, who told us what just-flown-in seafood was exciting that night -- and better yet, why it was exciting -- was there when we needed him and left us alone when we didn't.
After hearing our oyster preferences, he chose which six should star on our platter of a dozen -- which he delivered with a printed list so we knew which was which.
There was no 'have you dined with us before' nonsense, no pushing us to choose an appetizer before we could take in the menu.
If my Dover sole was strangely sturdy in texture, and a heavy caramelized onion-and-blue-cheese treatment obscured the flavor of my husband's swordfish, we didn't mind too much: It was a great evening. When service is focused on making guests feel good rather than being about the server, the rosy glow of being well-cared-for goes a long way.
Especially during a stressful holiday season. If I were worn down from shopping at the Galleria and looking for sustenance, a place offering service like this would seem immensely attractive.
Lunch was nearly as enjoyable. I can rarely resist a crab Louie, and Oceanaire's was classic, with lots of sweet crabmeat on a bed of iceberg, sliced tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs and a small boat of good Louie dressing. The cup of New England clam chowder that preceded it was better than most -- silky, flavorful and not pasty. My husband's $14 seafood chopped salad, featuring shrimp, crab, crumbled feta, tomatoes and romaine in an oregano-scented vinaigrette, would have made a fine main course, but his was a prelude to the beer-battered, crisply fried, moist and flavorful fish and chips. (The fish was splendid, though served with a mountain of mediocre skinny fries.) Beyond the holidays, this is also a fine site for a business lunch.
Unfortunately, when we returned for a second dinner, the experience wasn't nearly as good; the service was thoughtless, hasty and even snippy -- when it wasn't AWOL. Oddly, we had the same waiter who had taken such great care of us on the first visit, and the restaurant wasn't busy. There were problems on the plates, too: A couple of dishes came to the table cold, including oysters Rockefeller that probably would have been delicious before their gratin congealed; a main course of baked, stuffed shrimp Thermidor suffered from the same affliction. A highly recommended starter of tuna poke was overwhelmed by spicy Sriracha. Wine was overpoured, followed by aggressive questioning about whether we wanted another bottle. (Who knew? The three of us still had plenty in our glasses.)
As I had tried to choose a main course, the waiter steered me to the unfamiliar Iceland wolffish, explaining -- incorrectly, as it turns out -- that it's "the same as loup de mer" (also known as branzino or Mediterranean seabass). Simply prepared -- brushed with lemon butter and seared so it was still a bit translucent in the middle -- the delicately flavored fish, with a firmer, springier texture than branzino, was excellent, though not at all like branzino. I appreciated the fact that it was priced at $26 rather than $45 for the Nova Scotia halibut I had my eye on.
Aesthetically speaking, that's probably the lesson at Oceanaire: Chef Riddles' simpler dishes tend to be best, including plumply perfect, straight-ahead Chesapeake Bay-style crab cakes, and the various fish that are featured each day. Nantucket bay scallops prepared scampi-style in garlicky butter were succulent, sweet and tender, far superior to most bay scallops. A side order of button mushrooms roasted in Chardonnay was spot-on, while a golden-brown, skillet-shaped cake of hash browns was glorious on more than one occasion. Brussels sprouts leaves roasted with bacon and onion and showered with grated Parm were more involved, but delicious too.
For dessert, that baked Alaska, toasted prettily along the ridges of its piped meringue and filled with pumpkin ice cream, made an impressive flaming show; a classic Key lime pie was less dramatic but nice and zingy.
Mind you, the Oceanaire can be expensive. The Dover sole was $52. I didn't spring for a $64 2-pound Maine lobster or the $60-per-pound Alaskan king crab. Most of the oysters sell for $4 apiece (the going price around town is more like $3.25); an exception are the $3 Oceanaire Salts. Small and clean-tasting though without much personality, they're custom-farmed in Cape Cod for the Houston-based chain. (A very attractive $35 special on offer through Dec. 6 includes a dozen of the Oceanaire Salts plus a bottle of Sugar Reef Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand.)
Was the problematic service that one evening -- which included a manager who stood schmoozing endlessly with the diners at the next booth as we tried in vain to get someone's attention for service -- an anomaly? One hopes so. Because at its best, with its outstanding selection of treats from the sea and a chef who generally treats it right, the Oceanaire is certainly one of the better seafood places in town.
The Oceanaire Seafood Room (3 stars)
Price: $$$$ (lunch soups, salads and appetizers $6 to $36, burgers and sandwiches $14 to $19, main courses $18 to $64; dinner soups, salads and appetizers $6 to $80, main courses $22 to $64; desserts $10 to $13)
Service: Unpredictable, ranging from neglectful to mood-changingly wonderful
Ambience: A shiny, attractive seafood palace with an inviting raw bar displaying gorgeous seafood. The high-ceilinged, white-tablecloth dining room with a sweeping staircase leading to mezzanine seating has well-spaced tables and comfortable booths.