Who has the balls, in a nationwide recession, to launch a 9,100-square-foot, 285-seat supper club that flies in more than 30 varieties of fresh seafood daily from around the world--in the month of... January?
Phil Roberts, that's who. Roberts--the CEO of Minneapolis-based Parasole Restaurant Holdings and founder of the Buca di Beppo chain--intends to charm Seattle's seafood snobs with the third outpost of his swanky, retro-themed Oceanaire Seafood Room, which opened downtown last month. According to a report published last May in CityBusiness, a Twin Cities business journal, Roberts aspires to 20 restaurants and $924 million in sales by 2005.
Around here, the crash from Seattle's bloated salad days and the post-9/11 comfort-food craze has resulted in culinary attitude adjustments, and local schmancy destination spots have taken a big hit. It's a dicey time to be an upscale restaurant in Seattle. This town has seen sagging numbers and significant closings, from the classic Adriatica to smug dot-com-era enterprises like Stars and Falling Waters. Which is why I thought the Oceanaire had a death wish.
The Oceanaire may look like "the Queen Mary merged with the Stork Club" (Washington Post)--with buttery wood planks, red leather, and old-fashioned tile--but its spirit is pure Wall Street '80s. From the most obvious elements (an efficient staff that glides around like ships in a busy harbor; a glistening raw bar with shellfish perched atop ice mountains) to luxurious details (individual linens in restrooms), everything here basks in the glow of unabashed excess and comfort. Even the servers are aggressively pleasant, reciting specials with flourish and a chatty formality--and I'm not sure how I feel about that.
But it doesn't matter how I feel. What matters is the fish. The Oceanaire's fish is sublime and assured, with a menu full of traditional clubhouse favorites: a complimentary relish dish with pickled herring; Oysters Rockefeller ($12.95, and excellent--gently baked in their shells with spinach and a sprinkling of Parmesan); and Clams Casino ($8.95), which are broiled with butter under diced peppers and bacon... though I wish the bacon wasn't thrown on like an afterthought, more of a stiff garnish. What makes Clams Casino so good is when the bacon is cooked with the clam, so the bacon's flavor melts into the clam flesh. House-cured "Pastrami Salmon" ($7.95) is also presented old-school, alongside minced red onion and hard-boiled egg, capers, and toast points.
The Oceanaire's take on Chilean sea bass ($23.95) is simple and attractive, letting the generous 10-ounce portion (a standard restaurant cut is typically six to seven ounces) speak for itself. The filet rests on sautéed spinach and is expertly pan-seared, flaky and moist, pleasant with a mild beet purée. The decadent lunchtime lobster Cobb salad ($18.95) also shines in its simplicity--bites of naked lobster, chopped greens, and a barely there dressing.
But while very little makes me happier than fresh, plain Maine lobster, I nearly hit the floor when I took my first bite of bluefin, my Holy Grail of fish. This gargantuan tuna (full-grown adults can grow well over 10 feet long and weigh more than 1,000 pounds) is of the highest grade, with the highest fat content (say it with me, people! FAT = FLAVOR!). Sashimi chefs go crazy for toro, the fattiest part of a bluefin's belly, and they'll pay for it: a single superb bluefin can fetch as much as $60 grand. This explains the price tag on the "Sea of Cortez Bluefin Tuna" ($34.95)--but it's fucking worth it. Instead of the usual radiant red pigment of ahi tuna, the bluefin's flesh was a gorgeous rosy pink, evidence of the delicate fat that is so treasured. I savored mine--flawlessly seared, rare/raw within, and accompanied by pickled ginger, wasabi, and soy sauce--without condiments: just the fish alone, in thin pieces so I could make it last.
Despite my issues with corporate restaurants and pre-crash glitzy opulence, I wish this place well. I hope the Oceanaire hangs in there during the slow season, and survives opening jitters. I hope it finds a place alongside our other formidable seafood temples. And I hope it gets so busy, I need to wait for a table the next time I go.
Oceanaire Seafood Room
1700 Seventh Ave, 267-2277. Lunch and dinner Mon-Fri 11:30 am-11 pm; dinner only Sat 5-11 pm, Sun 5-9 pm.