Oceanaire Seafood Room
Oceanaire Seafood Room
location: 400 J Street, downtown San Diego
chef: Brian Malarkey
SEAFOOD, SINATRA AND SUPPER-CLUB FANS: Our ship has come in. The Oceanaire Seafood Room steamed into the Gaslamp last November, attracting a swell-elegant crowd of locals, conventioneers and expense-account types with—dare we believe it?—nary a baseball cap in the bunch. You can easily drop a C-note on dinner for two. If that’s too spendy, slurp fresh oysters in the bar for a buck apiece, weeknights from 5 to 6.
You’re welcome either way. Leave your wraps with the coatroom attendant, have the friendly mixologist pour you some giggle juice, and get ready for a swingin’ good time.
This high-concept eatery has a handful of catchy hooks, like the daily menu listing fish from around the globe, and the Forties-era soundtrack of ballads and big bands. It’s a looker, too, with frosty blue recessed lighting and spacious leather booths softer than a bunny’s nose.
Despite its chain status (other locations include Seattle, Dallas and Washington, D.C.), this is no corporate knockoff. San Diego native and seasoned restaurant manager Michael Mitchell leads the team. Executive chef Brian Malarkey has the freedom to create his own recipes and choose favorite purveyors and fish.
What a bounty this culinary captain commands: Marshall Islands yellowfin. Broomtail grouper. Virginia striped bass. Oysters of every stripe. Local lobsters. All of three non-fish entrées are offered here, including a marvelous semi-boned whole chicken that’s browned with rosemary ($18.95). But we digress. Oceanaire’s métier is seafood with international flair.
Maryland blue crabs shine in a starter both blue and red states could agree on: the nation’s top crab cake ($12.95). It’s pure lump meat, bound only with a whisper of egg and a breadcrumb or two.
Want to ease the winter chill? Choose rock shrimp in a torrid Asian stir-fry of chilies, orange zest and julienned veggies ($10.95) or the dozen green-lip mussels poached in a Gallic-style broth (also $10.95). Either appetizer will satisfy two people, while the simple bacon-tossed spinach salad could handle four ($8.95).
Skip the shrimp de jonghe with Dijon mustard ($7.95); they’re more ordinaire than Oceanaire.
Entrées can be pricy, but portions are enormous, and besides, this ain’t the Red Lobster. You can order your fish simply grilled or broiled, with a splash of olive oil and lemon, or choose from more elaborate specialties. Each evening’s fresh fish are listed on blackboards and indicated on the menu with a checkmark.
If Fijian yellowtail ($32.95) is checked, you’re in luck. The preparation is familiar —sear the gorgeous red meat just enough to seal the edges, then serve with a wasabi soy dip—but this fine sashimigrade fish blows other versions out of the water. California halibut ($25.95) is treated royally with a saffron-tinged crown of pearl couscous and king crab.
Cioppino, while a bit overboard on the Tabasco sauce, delivers plenty of tender white sea bass, shrimp and clams for $19.95. And the grilled New Zealand bluenose ($25.95)—reminiscent of Chilean sea bass, but slipperier—came out buttery and tender, though we find this trendy species a bit bland.
Side dishes are served family style— for families the size of the Waltons. The best choices are the cauliflower smashers (steamed, cut-up cauliflower with Parmesan, $5.95) and the truffly, peppery risotto ($9.95). Au gratin potatoes ($9.95) are more Cheddar hot dish than suave Parisian pommes de terre, but okay. Not the case with one night’s vinegar French fries ($4.95), overdone and hard as the shoestring variety in a can.
NO COMPLAINTS about the desserts, however, except for the poundage they’ll be adding to San Diego’s collective hips. The “super duper” caramel brownie ($13.95) earns its name, with enough ice cream, caramel, whipped cream and chocolate sauce to stock a Baskin-Robbins. The California apple crisp ($8.95) is less flamboyant, but this oatmeal-topped fruit cobbler will still zing the strings of your heart. Also on the list: golden oldies like baked Alaska, bread pudding and a banana split.
The service comes off at first as intrusive. We’re not accustomed to waiters telling us they’ll be back to “help us navigate the menu.” It’s all well-intentioned, though, and the staff can indeed provide some insights on the flavor profile of a particular fish or a wine that especially suits it. Waits between courses, however, can be lengthy when the dining room fills.
As for wine: Cheers to the management for having about 30 selections by the glass, and for having them poured at your table from the bottle. More often than not, servers will bring another wine for diners to sample, comparing two Sauvignon Blancs, for example, or introducing a German Riesling along with your Chardonnay. Another smart touch: the gleaming lounge area, run by savvy barkeeps who can discuss a rare singlemalt Scotch or whip up a sidecar without missing a beat.
Guys and dolls, we’ll be seeing you at the Oceanaire.
Oceanaire Seafood Room serves dinner nightly at 400 J Street, 619-858- 2277; theoceanaire.com.