I was 23 when I had my first oyster. This was in Bow, Washington, and the oyster was shucked and fed to me by my friend Claire, who had grown up eating them in the Skagit Valley. I was surprised by how normal oysters seemed to her—special, yes, but decidedly familiar. I grew up in Pennsylvania; it never occurred to me that oysters were a local staple people might eat casually in the backyard. I associated oysters with round, ruddy good ol' boys and gourmands like A. J. Liebling. Oysters went with lobsters, filet mignon, and martinis—things thrown down gullets in mysterious clubs of privilege and restaurants filled with dark wood and brass fixtures.
I fantasize about being A. J. Liebling—an insatiable, 300-pound-man who ate his way through the 20th century, worked as The New Yorker's World War II correspondent, wrote as vividly about boxing as he did about food, and married a very hot and troubled novelist. I know this dream is impossible, but Liebling was my inspiration when I put on a tight dress (made of expandable, stretchy fabric) and took a hot date to the Oceanaire Seafood Room.
The Oceanaire is all about nostalgia and tasteful excess. The restaurant is HUGE, like an obscenely deluxe 1930s art deco cruise ship, with polished, curved wood, gleaming silver accents, leather booths, dark wood floors. The servers wear black ties and what look like lab coats; they bring you a complimentary relish tray—pickled herring, black olives, and crudités on ice—when you sit down. A can of Aqua Net sits on the sink in the women's room; buckets of fresh ice are routinely poured into the men's room urinals. It is a terrific place to piss your money away.
The menu—printed new each day and roughly the size of the U.S. Constitution—holds an astounding array of options. Luxury means choices. Friday night's menu featured 25 different fresh-seafood options, flown in from across the country. There are nine salads to choose from (BLT salad with buttermilk-bacon dressing, $9.95; Dungeness crab Louis, $27.95), twenty-seven seafood entrées (Neah Bay ling cod à la forestiere, $36.95; sesame-seared Hawaiian mahimahi, $29.95) and six "steakhouse specialties," including an 18-ounce Kobe ribeye steak ($49.95). For the hot date and me, luxury meant indecision and an unhealthy dependence on our server, Tim, for guidance.
Thankfully, Tim provided good counsel, particularly when it came to oysters. We knew we wanted to start with a half dozen, but had no idea which to choose from the 10 varieties listed. We told him of our love of Kumamotos—those small, deep, sweet morsels—and he suggested his personal favorite, Effingham from Barkley Sound, B.C. ($2.25 each). They were tiny and delicate, rich and complex—that little mouthful was minerally, soft, salty, and bright all at once. We both felt like we could eat a hundred of them and call it the perfect dinner.
But we pressed on, staying tastefully excessive with the grand shellfish platter, "a towering sampler of chilled shrimp, local oysters, mussels, clams, and Dungeness crab" (large $75; small, $38). It was delicious and ridiculous—two levels of chrome, with lemon wedges speared on forks stuck, handles down, into ice from which crab claws protruded. We had to lean around the tower to talk to each other, proclaiming our awe over the purity, mildness, and sweetness of the meat. Clams and mussels, which so often suffer from questionable texture and funky flavor, tasted supple and subtle. Our hot entrée, brown-butter-seared Alaskan halibut with savoy cabbage, bacon, and Sweet 100 tomato sauce ($38.95) was disappointing. It was a beautiful piece of fish, but it was not simply seared—it was a bit dry and encased in a distinctly crispy crust. Perhaps the simplest choices might actually be the best.
I love that the Oceanaire is part of a chain (there are 14 in the U.S.), because it actually gives diners the best things a high-end chain can offer—quality food, good service, and a feeling of luxury that, while tasteful, is ultimately formulaic and generically welcoming. You won't feel like a fool if, say, at the end of dinner, excited (and maybe a bit tipsy) you fall off your chair. It's hard to feel intimidated when you're seated, as we were, next to a table of gamers in town for the Penny Arcade Expo, one of whom is wearing a camouflage Utilikilt. At the Oceanaire, we can all get a glimpse of how the other half eats.