Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Review: The Oceanaire Seafood Room

There is nothing casual about the Oceanaire. Well, maybe the tins of Old Bay, bottles of Tabasco and cellophane-wrapped servings of oyster crackers on each table - but that's the contradiction of the upscale seafood house, where the $1200 suit meets food you can only reasonably eat with your hands. I donned my considerably cheaper suit, and we headed out to give it a go.

Our visit to the Oceanaire's Philadelphia outpost was precipitated by our receipt of a gift card from my parents for our first anniversary. Make no mistake about it: if you're dining here, you are most likely on a big date, a rich old coot of some kind, or using your corporate Amex. It's not so much because of the prices (though they're not exactly cheap), but the air of formality about the place. The maitre d' greets you by your full name and introduces himself with a handshake when you check in. Wearing dark clothing? Someone will swap your white napkin out for a black one so as not to risk any unwanted lint ending up on your clothes. Though it all sounds a little over the top, in fact, everyone we encountered was very nice and professional, and the service pulls off the feat of being formal without being stuffy. The only thing that is slightly odd is that the servers are dressed in what look like lab coats, with their IDs worn visibly on the outside. You almost wonder if they'll want to test your cholesterol before selling you the shrimp cocktail.

"Buy local" types beware: the Oceanaire has its seafood flown in daily from all over the place. But, right at the top of the menu, they tell you where it comes from, so if you want to keep it semi-local (or at least East Coast) then you have that option. Alternatively, you can order crab legs that were caught by the Time Bandit from cable TV's Deadliest Catch. Anyway, there's a wide variety of undersea creatures on the menu, with a particular emphasis on raw-bar items like oysters and clams. The menu changes daily, and we were told if we fancied something that wasn't on the menu, the chef would be happy to make it for us. In the middle of this explanation, a very nice amuse-bouche of trout tartare on a potato crisp arrived.

After that bite and much deliberation, we started out with the "petite shellfish platter", which arrives as a two-foot mound of crushed ice studded with oysters, clams, shrimp, mussels, crab legs and claws, and topped with half a steamed lobster. All of the shellfish was was impeccably fresh and really tasted better without any of the provided sauces (mignonette, soy, mustard aioli and cocktail sauce). The cooked items were good as well, though the shrimp were a little tough, perhaps owing to their jumbo size. The only hitch here was getting all of the ice out of the shells without spilling any of their liquors - though the presentation is impressive, serving the shellfish on top of the ice rather than jammed in it might help. That, and I simply don't have the skill or patience for extracting crabmeat from the shell, but I hold not the restaurant but Mother Nature accountable for that, for designing an creature that is so inconvenient to eat.

Next we split the BLT salad, which was a blend of crisp iceberg and romaine lettuces with tomato in a buttermilk dressing, topped with few slices of delectably porky bacon. Beware - this was truly a huge salad; even split into two portions, it was more than enough.

Prior to the arrival of our entrees, Drew, our eager server, offered L a bib in the form of a napkin alligator-clipped around her neck. Naturally, I did not let her decline, nor could I resist snapping a photo of the spectacle. Out of respect for my wife, I will not post it.

Bibbed and ready for action, L welcomed her bouillabaisse to the table. Prawns, scallops ("People actually go diving and get these by hand! What a cool job!", said Drew), mussels, clams, and a white fish of some kind, all served in a rich, if slightly salty, broth flavored by the aforementioned Deadliest Catch crabs. Delicious and satisfying.

I had a filet of Washington State trout, served crispy skin-side-up over large slices of potato with a butter and caper sauce. Everything on the plate was cooked perfectly, and the simplicity of the dish demonstrated admirable restraint. We also ordered one of the a-la carte sides, mixed roasted vegetables, which we ended up mostly taking home.

If you're in the mood for something more involved, there are crab-topped-this and cedar-planked-that things on the menu, and if you don't like fish at all and have been dragged there by a pescavore, well, you can either re-examine your relationship or order chicken or a steak.

Though we were pretty full at this point, we had a gift card to extinguish, so we decided to split the baked Alaska for dessert. This could not have made Drew happier, or my earlier use of the word "extinguish" any more relevant, because we were in for a tableside presentation in which a sauce boat full of rum is set aflame and theatrically poured over the Alaska's meringue to toast it. The dish mostly lived up to the spectacle, though the un-burned-off alcohol lent a not particularly welcome sting to the dessert.

To reiterate, service was great. There are many wines available by the glass, and you are offered a courtesy tasting pour before you commit to one to make sure you like it. This was great because the Pinot Grigio I ordered turned out to have a skunkier flavor than I would have liked, but quick-thinking Drew offered up a fine alternative (an Italian Sauvignon Blanc). And you do get a healthy pour of wine indeed.

So we walked out of the Oceanaire with some leftover bouillabaisse, a whole lot of roasted vegetables, and the feeling of having been pampered and entertained for several hours. The best part? It only cost us a $40 tip! But I can't help but wonder what my disposition would have been if we had to pay. I think it just underscores that eating at this restaurant is (rather by design, I would say) a "dining event". Perhaps an old-fashioned notion, but sometimes, a comforting one. As long as you've got the coin, they've got the clams.

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