Monday, July 28, 2008

Dining Aboard An Ocean Liner - The Oceanaire Seafood Room (San Diego)

Hailed by many as one of "San Diego's Best Restaurants" and located in the trendy and ever-popular Gaslamp District, The Oceanaire Seafood Room has built up quite a reputation. Adding to the expectations is the fact that The Oceanaire in San Diego is also home to Executive Chef Brian Malarkey, a contender on Season 3 of Top Chef, and an apprentice under famed Chef Michel Richard of Citrus fame. And so it was under those factors that our party arrived at the doorstep of The Oceanaire, eager and excited to see what the buzz was all about.

The outside of the restaurant had a simple neon sign that only hinted at what the interior decor would be like. Upon entering, we were greeted with a beautiful, but tiny, finely polished wood panel lobby. And a spiral staircase that wound up to the second floor. Following the staircase, we arrived upon the actual restaurant: A smart, sleek, and elegant dining area that truly gave the impression of a classic 1930's Ocean Liner.

Sure, there was a bit of the "Theme Restaurant" angle, but executed in a way that felt more "classic" than "trendy." We were seated in a quiet corner, near the beautiful bar, and proceeded to peruse the menu.

The Oceanaire prints out a daily menu, mainly to display what the fresh seafood of the day are: They have a table of about 30 different items, and the daily menu adds a check next to the seafood that's available fresh that day (with a rather decent selection, ranging from items such as Maine Monkfish, to New Zealand Bluenose). They also have a nice selection of Oysters, a "Grand Shellfish Platter" and Traditional Caviar Service. We had heard much about their "amazing" Crab Cakes, so that was the first thing we had to order. :)

We were served complementary Sourdough Bread, and a plate of Pickled Herring while we waited for our food to arrive. The Pickled Herring was decent, nothing to write home about, perhaps a bit too acidic, and the Sourdough Bread was fine. No complaints.

The Chesapeake Bay Style Crab Crake arrived, and it looked impressive already: A huge, meaty mound of absolutely delicious Crab Meat, lightly browned, and perfectly moist within! It was probably ~95% pure Crab Meat - savory, yet inherently sweet from the Crab itself - held together lightly by a little bit of Mayonnaise and herbs, and truly one of the best Crab Cakes I've had in the last 2-3 years.

The first entree arrived: Horseradish Crusted Alaskan Halibut, Saffron Fumet and Spring Vegetables. From looking at the exterior, I could tell that the Halibut was overcooked. After one bite, my fears were confirmed: The Alaskan Halibut was sadly overcooked and completely dry and tasteless. Taking a bite near the center of the cut, where the Halibut was moist along with some of the Horseradish Crust, it showed promise of what Chef Malarkey may have envisioned with this dish - a light, clean, moist Halibut taste, cut through beautifully by the Horseradish - but the majority of this dish was nearly inedible. The Saffron Fumet was underseasoned and couldn't help save the overcooked Halibut.

The next entree fared better: "Black N Bleu" Cajun Rubbed Baja Mako Shark, Sweet Onion Confit and Roquefort Bleu Cheese Butter. This definitely had more taste than the Halibut, but it was perhaps too much in the opposite direction: The Mako Shark was already slathered in a house Cajun Rub, lending plenty of flavor by itself, but when paired with the Roquefort Bleu Cheese Butter and the Balsamic Vinegar reduction, the dish was just teeming with too many strong flavors clashing at the same time. It was very rich and heavy, and while Mako Shark can handle bolder flavors, there was just too much of it.

The final entree of the night was their Pan Seared Catalina Island White Seabass, King Trumpet Mushrooms, Melted Leeks, Bacon Lardoons, and Brie Cream Sauce. This was probably the best entree of the night, with the White Seabass being cooked nicely (just a touch overcooked, but still very moist and flaky), with a nice seared crust on top. It was lightly seasoned, and was complemented wonderfully by the King Trumpet Mushrooms, and the Brie Cream Sauce.

The Oceanaire offers up an impressive selection of Side Dishes, meant to be shared family style (similar to many popular steakhouses). We decided to try out a couple choices, starting with their Salt and Vinegar Fries. Our waiter encouraged us to order only the "Small" version, and for $3.95, this was probably the most ridiculous "Small" Size Fries I've ever seen: A giant mound of French Fries, seasoned generously with Salt and Vinegar, quite tasty, but just too much food. The Small Size could feed 4-6 people easily.

The other Side Dish we tried was their Cauliflower Smashers, which was made up nearly entirely with Steamed Cauliflower, smashed up after cooking, and mixed with a sprinkle of Cheese and Chives. Texture-wise, it looked and tasted like "Smashed Potatoes," only with Cauliflower, and overall, it was a much healthier and lighter alternative to traditional Mashed Potatoes.

We ended the night with their Seasonal Fruit Crisp, arriving in a huge pot, and essentially a Fruit Cobbler, loaded with lots of fresh fruit - Peaches, Strawberries, Raspberries - with a Granola-like, crisped top crust, and topped with a giant scoop of Vanilla Ice Cream. It was standard fare, nothing special, but a fun way to end the evening, a nice interplay between the hot Fruit Cobbler and the cold Vanilla Ice Cream on top.

Service was inconsistent, with great, professional, spot-on service from our waiter for the first half of the meal, but as the restaurant reached full capacity, we saw less and less of our waiter. The second half of the meal was a chore in trying to flag down our server or the bus boy to get refills on our drinks, or other needs. The total came out to be roughly ~$85 per person (including tax and tip).

The Oceanaire Seafood Room in San Diego is a bit of a hit-or-miss: The beautiful decor, reminiscent of a 1930's grand Ocean Liner, complete with wonderful music (Classic Jazz and Big Band), can't save the overcooked and overdressed food. But all isn't lost, as we see flashes of brilliance with their amazing Chesapeake Crab Crakes and the solidly executed White Seabass. There are also plenty of interesting sounding items on their menu - Blue Crab Cocktail, or the Samoan Tombo Tuna with Black Summer Truffle Demi-Glaze - that make me want to pay them another visit. Hopefully their other dishes can exceed what we had on our visit this evening. Otherwise, The Oceanaire should remain docked and we should seek fine seafood elsewhere.

Rating: 6.8 (out of 10.0)

The Oceanaire Seafood Room
400 J Street
San Diego, CA 92101
(619) 858-2277

Hours: Sun - Thurs, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Fri - Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.


tjy57 said...

Hey, EK:

Been reading your reviews and was wondering if when you get something like the overcooked halibut if you ever send it back and refuse to pay or ask them to remake it. Doesn't seem like you do but understand that this is OK for a customer to do. You should get what you pay for, no?

Exile Kiss said...

Hi tjy57,

Thank you. :)

It depends on how bad it is, but generally, "no," I don't send back a dish (unless it was totally the wrong order).

The customer does have a right to do that by all means, but sadly, in this day and age, I fear the potential "retribution" factor, and I don't want to hold up a meal with my guests (with them finishing up their meals well before me and waiting).

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