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Friday, April 26, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

Oceanaire finds a welcoming port for its luxury-liner approach to seafood

Seattle Times restaurant critic

The Oceanaire Seafood Room


1700 Seventh Ave., Seattle, 206-267-BASS (2277)

Seafood

***

$$$$

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays, dinner only 5-11 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays.

Prices: appetizers $6.95-$34 (for shareable shellfish platter), soups/salads $4.50-$16.95, sides $4.25-$8.95, lunch entrees $9.95-$34.95, dinner entrees $17.95-$34.95 (surf and turf $58.95).

Parking: valet $7.

Sound: festive (it's quieter in the area adjacent to the private dining room).

Full bar / major credit cards / smoking at bar only / no obstacles to access.

The Oceanaire Seafood Room sailed into town late last year intent on becoming Seafood City's premier seafood destination. This steakhouse-style fish-focused concept — already a hit in Minneapolis and D.C. — had the restaurant-reproduction rhythm down. Swiftly setting up shop, the Oceanaire unlocked its stately revolving glass door in January with a shipshape crew standing at attention as the public came aboard.

What they found was a clean-lined, retro-swank, high-energy retreat where they could cruise through a menu offering a variety of pristine seafood brought in daily from waters near and far. Three months later, I won't argue: The Oceanaire has quickly become Seattle's premier seafood house, and anyone who disagrees with that assessment can kiss my halibut cheeks.

Pricey? You bet. But then so is a cruise on the QE2, and while both may offer Iranian caviar, baked Alaska, obscene amounts of food and a rich man's wine list, the QE2 isn't as conveniently located near the Pacific Place parking garage. I went mad for this joint the first time I showed up intending to sit at the oyster bar and have a quick drink before dining elsewhere. Two hours, a killer cocktail and a towering chilled shellfish sampler later, I was a convert. Here's why:

When you arrive at the Oceanaire, there's a manager waiting to greet you and a hostess who will happily relieve you of your coat — stowed in an honest-to-God coatroom. You'll be graciously whisked to a table in this sweep of a room, stylishly outfitted with plush red booths, hardwood floors and Art Deco accouterments. As the greatest hits of the Swing Era set the mood, you're presented with a menu printed twice daily to reflect airfreight's incoming tide, executive chef Kevin Davis' artistic whim and the lunch-timer's penchant for such sandwiches as an Arkansas catfish "poor boy" ($9.95).

White-coated servers whose pockets harbor oft-used table-crumbers waste no time offering drinks, as fleet-footed busboys arrive bearing crusty sourdough bread and relish trays heaped with crudités and pickled herring. Make the mistake of ordering a Bloody Caesar ($7.95) — the clam lover's answer to a Bloody Mary, rimmed with lip-smacking Old Bay seasoning and garnished with a jaunty prawn — and you won't need an appetizer. Order an entree and you won't need to try the simple, spectacular clam chowder, the fabulous feeds-four BLT salad or substantial sides of fried green tomatoes, creamed corn or hash browns (the latter big as a birthday cake). Nor will you have room for warm strawberry-rhubarb crisp — though to miss any of these offerings would be criminal.

Expect a lengthy tableside dissertation regarding the menu. Questions are encouraged. (And I'll answer an obvious one now. Yes, there are non-seafood entrees. Four of them.) Listen up and you may learn that Quilcene oysters offer a "celery finish," that the Samoan sailfish has a "gamey, almost boar-like flavor," and that "day-boat" offerings such as Hawaiian mahi-mahi and California swordfish were swimming free only yesterday. Perhaps you'll be told that moonfish is another name for Hawaiian opah, that Sitka Sound ivory king salmon is white-fleshed and that the red chili squid is incredible, in part, because it's fresh from Point Judith, which, not that you asked, is off the coast of Rhode Island.

Homesick East Coast natives are likely to jump to attention upon hearing the jumbo lump crab cakes ($24.95) are the size of a baseball and made with East Coast blue crab. Just as your server will jump at the chance to place a special request for littleneck clams on the half-shell, rather than insist you order the day's clam catch baked, as clams casino.

You may hear a convincing argument for one of a half-dozen fresh fish listed as "Simply Grilled or Broiled" ($17.95 to $27.95, on a recent visit), naked but for a brush with olive oil, a spritz of lemon and a sprinkling of sea salt. Though you're as likely to hear recommendations for "retro" charmers like shrimp de jonghe (five fat prawns doing the backstroke in a luscious mixture of Dijon mustard, breadcrumbs, herbs, garlic and butter, $8.95); or Aunt Joy's stuffed sole ($23.95) — a young fogey's delight stuffed with Dungeness crab, bay shrimp and brie.

Perhaps you'll be swayed when told the whole Arctic char — whose taste and texture is much like steelhead — arrives with head and fins intact, its crisp skin "just like fried chicken" ($34.95). Or warned that the whole Dungeness crab ($28.95), flash-fried with garlic, basil, chilies and orange zest, requires work. When you take the bait, you'll be presented with the proper tools, towels, a bucket and a bib to do the job. A job that — like mine after several visits — hurts so good I can't wait to torture myself some more.

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or nleson@seattletimes.com.

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