Like all serious eaters, I avoid most chains on principle. Even the high-end ones, the ones that actually have kitchens instead of just freezers full of factory-made product & bank after bank of deep fryers to thaw it all in, share that ethos of consistency, i.e. sameness, i.e. predictability, that goes against everything I love about dining out: a sense of place, the passing of moments that couldn’t be replicated anywhere else, an intimate understanding of the chef’s worldview as manifested in his or her cooking. The words “local” and “organic” don’t just apply to ingredients—they apply to experiences too.
But Oceanaire, as I’ve noted before, is a breath of guess what amid the stench of corporate branding. If its 1950s supper club-meets-cruise ship swankiness smacks just a touch of the boardroom brainstorm, the space is no less genuinely cool for that; if you squint you can pretend the crowd is all decked out in flannel suits & wingtips, cocktail shifts & pincurls. And amazingly, nothing else smacks thus.
The service, for one thing, is impeccable, exhibiting the perfect balance between professionalism & personality. In fact, it was Colonel Hector Bravado’s rave about one bartender in particular during our recent interview that reminded me it had been too long since my last splurge at the downtown seafooder, especially since I was pretty sure I knew whom he meant: a tall blonde whose name I got this time while doing the obligatory round of oysters at the bar—Kara, who praised the Director’s request for Laphroaig with a grin, “That’s my favorite too—so smoky & stinky & peaty.”
Meanwhile, I kept it simple with bubbly, not wanting to risk losing the flavors of the oysters on our platter, which were all new to me: gentle, clean Rappahannocks & Barcats from Maryland, plus British Columbian Fanny Bays—on whose cucumbery relish I’ll second Rowan Jacobsen.
Then, for the first time ever, we repaired to an actual table, the way nice, normal diners do, where the evidence of the extent to which Oceanaire’s charm stems from little amenities just piled up. For instance, it’s just so darn cute that the table setting includes a box of Old Bay & a little notepad! What sweet nothings might have been scribbled here? We made Top 10 lists.
Then there are the little premeal goodies—a sourdough boule that’s excellent from chewy crust to loose crumb & a relish tray of crudités, olives, cherry peppers & a highly unexpected (the 1st time) but much welcomed (always) ramekin of pickled herring.
And on this particular night, perhaps a perk of table dining as we’ve never received one before, our young but super-smooth server Justin brought us an amuse bouche—a bit of gingered salmon & cucumber on a housemade potato chip. Nothing groundbreaking; nice nonetheless.
An app of Fresno shrimp was likewise no novelty—but then, novelty really isn’t the name of Oceanaire’s game. Though the large menu is hardly devoid of innovative touches, its overall appeal, like that of the decor, inheres in the retro: shrimp de Jonghe, cioppino, scampi, escargots, creamed corn, superb Green Goddess dressing & warm chocolate chip cookies with milk (the latter two as per my earlier, above-linked post). And actually, contrary to contemporary standards, it’s the starters that hew more to the classic here, the entrees that skew more unusual.
Anyway, this is your typical heap of deep fried shrimp, a little too heavily breaded, but well seasoned enough to keep us plowing through it until somewhat past the ideal stopping point. Above all, as is often the case, it was a condiment I fell for: while the malt aioli didn’t distinguish itself beyond richness, the housemade hot sauce was terrific, thin & vinegary. Like fresh-squeezed Tabasco, basically.
My belly already nearing capacity à la the ship’s cabin in A Night at the Opera, I went for broke via the rainbow trout stuffed with crab, shrimp & Brie in a white wine beurre blanc. Served whole with the head & tail on, its skin crackling, that fish offered a fine exterior indeed; the flesh was milder than expected, but those few chunks that were moistened by the sauce alone shone. As for the stuffing that otherwise overwhelmed it a bit—all by itself, ahh: chunky, melting, funky & sea-sweet.
Oceanaire’s salads are all giant flavorcraft carriers, from the crab & bay shrimp chopped salad to the BLT salad with buttermilk-bacon dressing. But it’s the sides that are like the tugboats for the fleet of a full meal here: however almost comically starchy & fattening, you have to have at least one to pull the whole thing together. The slab of so-called bacon steak is rightly given widespread due, & the coleslaw has a wonderful old-fashioned roughness of character, but the Director loves his potatoes au gratin.