It's a bit embarrassing. Located at the nexus of Duxbury oysters, Wellfleet littlenecks, Maine lobster, Chatham cod, and Point Judith squid, Boston has been colonized by a nonnative species: the Oceanaire, a branch of a seafood chain that started in . . . Minneapolis.
This is tantamount to New Englanders opening a restaurant in Minnesota that serves Jell-O salad and wild rice, only with a much better chance of success. The Jell-O salad and wild rice concept has yet to catch on.
Why did the Oceanaire Seafood Room dock here? Because there was a market for it. In this city by the sea, a city people visit with visions of chowdah and cod dancing in their heads, there simply aren't that many high-quality seafood restaurants. (E-mail address below for those who wish to violently disagree.) There are many high-quality restaurants that serve high-quality, often local seafood. But when it comes to places that specialize, it seems that if it's fish, it has to be Legal.
Oceanaire specializes, helmed by executive chef Dan Enos, formerly of the Capital Grille. The restaurant takes a tried-and-true formula - the steakhouse - and reverses the surf-to-turf ratio: lots of seafood varieties and preparations, a few steaks for the pescaphobes. It has the swank veneer of a steakhouse, albeit one located on a retro ocean liner. There's plenty of dark wood, a circular raw bar, classic cocktails, trophy fish hanging on the walls, and big band jazz playing in the background. Mercifully there's no Celine Dion, but you still half-expect Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet to come strolling through at any minute.
The steakhouse menu structure is here, too, if only as a starting point: You can choose what kind of fish you want, then have it grilled, broiled, served "A la Oscar" (with asparagus, crab, and bearnaise sauce), or stuffed with crab, shrimp, and brie. Sides include steakhouse favorites such as sauteed wild mushrooms, steamed asparagus with hollandaise, and mashed potatoes.
There's plenty beyond that, too - oysters, shellfish platters, caviar, lobster, and crab, plus a long list of specialties including a nicely zesty Portuguese fish stew and an obscenely fried fisherman's platter. (This last could feed a whole crew, albeit mostly with potatoes. It's a mountain of french fries studded with not enough seafood.) Oceanaire's emphasis is on what's fresh - in case you missed that, the menu is topped with the words "FRESH TODAY!" and the date, with a list of fish from Bay of Fundy salmon to New Zealand moonfish, check marks next to the ones that are available.
In the spirit of luxury liner decadence, there is no reference to sustainability. Oceanaire doesn't want you to think unpleasant thoughts while you're eating. It's thinking them for you, though, seemingly striking a balance between ecology and expectation. Panamanian swordfish is available, in all its turtle-threatening, mercury-laden glory. But when the restaurant heard Nantucket sole was being overfished, it switched to Alaskan sole. Alaskan sablefish (a.k.a. black cod) gets the nod, Chilean sea bass doesn't. The sablefish makes an appearance in a miso glaze, served with soy dashi and soba; it's very salty but delicious.
The fish in general is very good, and it shines at its simplest. One recent evening, a hunk of grilled wild Alaskan halibut arrives, snowy white flesh charred in places from the heat. A squeeze of lemon is all it needs - it's juicy, mild but not bland, lightly smoky, and salted just enough. With sides of sauteed spinach and wild mushrooms (though "wild" may be a stretch; they look like the varieties commonly foraged from the grocery store, but they are tasty), it's a lovely meal.
When it comes to entrees, this simplicity is the exception, not the rule. Many of the dishes feature creamy, cheesy elements: feta, the above-mentioned brie, brandy peppercorn cream sauce. These preparations speak of richness but can also mask the fresh fish that's the real point here. Take the Panamanian "black and bleu" mahi-mahi with sweet onion confit and Roquefort butter. The fish is fried till it's nearly jerky at the edges, and the cheese and onions dominate.
Of course, with lobster bisque, cream is part of the point. This could be a great rendition - it has intense lobster flavor, but it's so thick it could more accurately be called lobster pudding. A bit more stock and some big chunks of lobster would make it excellent. Richness of a different kind works wonderfully in a dish of foie gras-crusted Georges Bank sea scallops. The shellfish and liver balance each other - sweet, clean flavors layered with earthy, animal ones.
Also well balanced is a gargantuan salad of greens with capers, roasted red peppers, asparagus, and white anchovies, the elegant ribbons of fish a far cry from their brown, oily cousins that are feared and loathed by many. A mix of flavors salty and fresh, the salad can feed an entire table. If you're lucky, your fellow diners will be of the anchovy-hating variety and there will be more of these plump, (relatively) mild morsels for you.
For sheer fish house decadence, you can't beat platters of lobster, crab, shrimp, mussels, clams, and oysters on ice, with lemon wedges and cocktail sauce that includes shreds of fresh horseradish. (There's also sesame-soy sauce, and an oddly fruity strawberry and Grey Goose mignonette.) At $44 for a small that nicely whets the appetites of four, it's not a bad deal, especially on a menu where entrees climb out of the $30 range and into the $40s and beyond.
Continuing the decadent theme is dessert. There's baked Alaska, but the toasted meringue outside, flambeed at the table, clashes with the mint chip ice cream inside. Opt instead for the gooey madness of the tin roof sundae - brownies stacked with ice cream, then topped with hot fudge, marshmallow fluff, and salty peanuts.
Oceanaire purports to be simultaneously suit-worthy and casual - the website tells you to dress for the occasion, not the restaurant. Despite that, the menu and the decor seem much more business lunch than clambake - the building used to be a bank, after all. Where service is concerned, Oceanaire veers more toward formality, with post-shellfish platter hand towels (inexplicably ratty for a new restaurant) and many implements of seafood destruction - tongs, itty bitty forks, and the like. The servers aren't quite up to speed yet; one night a waitress explains the menu to us for about 15 minutes (it's a menu, we get it), another a waiter asks the women if they want the appetizers they just ordered as their entrees, then refuses to serve us muscadet with our oysters. "It was fine for your grandparents, but not for you," he says. Huh? Well then, what do you recommend? Sauvignon blanc and nothing but sauvignon blanc, it turns out. Fine, but with a list of decently priced bottles of assorted provenance and grape variety, there's more to life than sauvignon blanc alone.
The Oceanaire is vast, but if you dine on a busy evening, you may get shunted into one of the cramped side rooms. Uncomfortable and removed from the convivial bustle, it's a bit like getting stuck in steerage. Unfortunately, this won't affect your ticket price: A platter of filet mignon and Alaskan king crab legs still runs you $75.95. In your face, burgeoning recession. We may be sinking, but we'll finish the last dance before we go down.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.