400 J Street, Downtown San Diego
I read the news today, oh boy. Seafood is back in the headlines. A few months ago it was bad news about mercury. Now it's good news: eating fish seems to stave off heart disease, tennis elbow, and the blue meanies. A quick summing-up: big, predator fish (like bluefin and albacore, swordfish and king mackerel) are chancy, especially if you're pregnant or a kid. Most other species are A-OK unless they're endangered by poachers (like Chilean sea bass, orange roughy, and Beluga caviar) or are badly farm-raised like so many aquatic factory chickens (which means most Atlantic salmon). Oysters: lotsa cholesterol, but mainly good cholesterol. Confusion, total.
Suddenly I found myself hungry for fish and ravenous for oysters. Over the last couple of years, several friends have reported pleasant experiences snacking at the Oceanaire's Oyster Bar or enjoying seasonal special dinners there, so that's where I headed.
My partner was out of town, so I called on my friend Sam to help scout out Oceanaire's Oyster Bar. As you cozy up to the valet parking stop on Fourth Avenue, you can see the ground-floor kitchen through the window. It's huge, clean, modern, populated with well-spaced line chefs rapidly cooking, heating, flipping, and turning out plates.
The Oyster Bar and dining rooms are up a grand staircase, but ever-dedicated to checking for handicap access, I took the elevator that's to the left of the front door. At the top, on the left, is the moderately crowded Oyster Bar, and next to that, an overpopulated liquor bar, bodies four deep. To the right and ahead, beyond the hostess station, are several oversized dining rooms, decorated to evoke a luxury liner of old, with semi-carpeted hardwood flooring, fish sculptures on the walls, booths of rich brown leather and polished red-brown wood, and tables with white napery and leather-cushioned chairs. Thirties and Forties jazz plays assertively on the sound system.
The Oyster Bar crowd runs to younger couples, eating casually before heading for the club scene. On a Monday night, the adjoining liquor bar was thronged by single guys in jeans and tees; next night, it was all gray hair and suits. The Oyster Bar stools are so high, I wished I had a saddle-horn to grab hold of. I'd forgotten -- always mount a horse from the left; I was struggling to do it from the right.
The menu is printed daily on a 19- x 11-inch sheet of heavy paper. Listed near the top are all the species carried regularly by the restaurant, with checkmarks next to those available that evening. The oysters and clams du jour are noted under a "fresh today" heading. You can get your fish "Simply Grilled or Broiled," or go to a list of specialties for more complex preparations. In any week, specialties are largely the same every day, but made with different fish, according to availability. From time to time, there is a major change with five or six replacements. At West Coast outposts (Oceanaire has locations in nine cities nationwide), most fin fishes are Pacific species. The thrilling wine list is printed on the reverse side of the menu.
Whether you're in the Oyster Bar or the dining room, you begin with house-baked sourdough bread and a ramekin of butter with an image of a fish stamped into it, plus a relish tray with pickled cucumbers and peppers, radishes, black olives, carrot and celery strips, and a small box of wine-marinated herring (which tastes just like Lascco brand).
The bar has live shuckers, but you order from a waiter. Our server was expert or bossy or both. We wanted to try two each of all eight oyster variations available that night (after all, oysters have almost no calories), plus an extra pair of the tiny, sweet Kumamotos from Eureka. The waiter didn't like the New Zealand Coromandels or the Canadian Fanny Bays, so he made us up a platter of an even dozen, bringing Quonset (Rhode Island), Gorge Inlet (British Columbia), Tatamagouche (Nova Scotia), and Cohansy. (Noo Joisey has ersters?) We started with the first pair of creamy Kumamotos. They were exceptional -- as they often are. The rest were disappointing in comparison, less vibrant than oysters I've eaten at Blue Waters, Lou and Mickey's, and King's Fish House. The "fixin's" were okay -- a middle-of-the-road mignonette and a cocktail sauce that welcomed a squeeze of lemon juice.
Second round, we went clam-diving, starting with a pair of raw New York littlenecks (interesting, but not the sweetest) followed by the same bivalves baked as clams casino, one of a dozen-odd corporate dishes you'll find at any of the restaurant's locations. This version has whole clams heated on the half-shell, with a topping of bacon slices and parsley. The shells were awash in a seepage of oil (bacon fat? butter?). It seemed like something a suburban hostess might have served to the bridge club in 1964.
One minute later, we were hungry again. (Remember, oysters have no calories -- and no MSG.) We enjoyed a well-balanced salad of shrimp and moist crab with oranges, arugula, and avocado in a citrus dressing. A generously sized appetizer of red chili rock shrimp featured popcorn shrimp in a crisp cornstarch batter, surrounded by a slaw of shredded red-and-white cabbage, carrots, red bell pepper, and toasted garlic slices. The dressing was spicy and tangy, heavy on Asian red chili oil, the excess of which settled into a sump at the bottom of the bowl -- but the flavors and textures worked together deliciously.
I returned next night with high hopes, and with reinforcements to tackle the long menu, which runs to some 30 entrées. Dave and Marty had reported that they'd enjoyed a simply grilled fish at the restaurant on New Year's Eve, and they joined me, along with Alan and Esther, who'd just returned from a Central California wine-tasting vacation.
We discovered that, like the Oyster Bar, each table has a full line of condiments -- a small bottle of ketchup, a large bottle of Tabasco sauce, a shaker of ground black pepper, a whole yellow box of Old Bay seasoning, and a 26-ounce canister of La Baleine French sea salt. Looking over the menu, Marty pointed out, amused, that the first appetizer listed is a "tomato juice cocktail" for 95 cents. (After that, prices shoot up tenfold.)
We began with crab cakes, which proved some of the best ever -- especially if you like your crab unadulterated. The baseball-size orbs are made of pieces of sweet Chesapeake Bay blue crab, with a flour binder that mingles with the crab juices. The flour forms a crisp, brown coating. Alongside sits a steel shot-glass holding mustard-aioli dip. An appetizer consists of one cake, an entrée has two.
El Diablo squid, which the menu labels "Chino Latino," features battered deep-fried calamari, corn tortilla strips, and hot-pepper strips in a sweet-hot sauce resembling Vietnamese nguoc cham table sauce. It's a clever and tasty dish, but Oceanaire's style was becoming apparent: as in the red chili rock shrimp, the Asian flavors are splashed on like cologne, not thoroughly woven into the character of the dish.
Oysters Gatesafellar (you know -- Bill) was okay, but low on cream and a bit dry, with the oysters chopped and mixed with bacon and spinach, then finished with a thin cheese topping that's grilled past melting to the dried-out point. You'd never mistake this for Galatoire's' (in New Orleans) lush original.
About Oceanaire's rendition of Cajun rubbed BBQ prawns: I wonder if they had a Cajun come rub the prawns, or if they rubbed the prawns on a Cajun? The shrimp were dark red from a rub of salt and hot red pepper and then more salt and were served on slabs of red-surfaced salted garlic toast. Cajun is not a red state, but a state of flavor -- more complex than salt and hot.
The best was not yet to come. Instead of ordering safely from the Simply Grilled or Broiled section, we gambled on composed entrées. The fusiony appetizers are fun, and it's easy to forgive a little oil in the bowl, but when you're dealing with expensive entrées, the stakes are higher. This is a huge restaurant, often feeding four or five hundred covers on a weekend evening. The kitchen staff is small for the restaurant size (four hot-line chefs, two pantry, two oyster bar, and three roving sous chefs to monitor execution). No matter how good the recipes taste when the chefs create them, they may turn out less perfect when rushed out by the hot-line.
The table favorite highlighted fire-roasted Mano de León scallops from Baja, sweet and cooked tender. They were served over pearl pasta in a soy sauce gravy with frisée, chives, and some lost little spiny lobster bits. Here, the soy-sauce gravy was an earthy change from the typical cream or butter sauce.
An entrée of local spiny lobster is called "First of the Season... Angry" -- Is it angry at being eaten? Or maddened by the overwhelming sauce of toasted garlic slivers, serrano chilis, fresh basil leaves, and Louie dressing, which came together as a raggedy hot ketchup? "This doneness is perfect, but I can't taste the lobster under the sauce," said Esther, to general agreement.
We were excited to find some rarely offered fish on the menu. Oven-roasted Alaskan halibut cheeks are a good excuse for halibut, and the fish was moist and pleasant. The Provençale-style preparation -- capers, sun-dried tomatoes, and soggy Tuscan black olives (with pits) -- was a decent idea, but the fish swam in the olive oil at the bottom of the plate.
The Oceanaire website stresses freshness, so we put it to the test by ordering Fijian opah (moonfish). The waitress asked how we wanted it cooked, adding, "The chef likes it medium." We went with the chef's choice. It was the wrong choice. I've eaten a memorable Hawaiian opah at a great seafood restaurant in Honolulu; there, the chef preferred it medium rare (i.e., opalescent), sauced with beurre blanc. (Say, why doesn't Oceanaire offer beurre blanc as a side for its grilled fish?) More crucially, opah (and ono) just don't seem able to survive the long trip from fishing boat to processor to airport, etc. By the time they arrive in San Diego, they're mere shadows of themselves. The sauce for the opah was a bright-red parody of a truffled Bordelaise, atop truffled mash, alongside chewy dried wild mushrooms that needed more rehydrating time. Opah can be a delicate fish, but this preparation treats it like salmon, sturgeon, orange roughy -- all species that can take a "red meat" treatment.
Unique, to say the least, is Oceanaire's rendition of bouillabaisse. All it has in common with the Marseilles prototype is a mixture of sea creatures. Bouillabaisse is above all about its broth, and here the scant liquid tasted like thin tomato soup (complete with small, unripe fresh tomatoes afloat). It had no fish-stock flavor, merely a lot of salt exuding from the brine-frozen Alaskan crab legs. There was no rouille (the customary red-pepper aioli) on the bread or for the bread. There were no fish in the bowl, just shellfish. Can't really complain about that, except for the overall effect on the soup. I loved the scallop in the shell. Loved the first mussel. Prawn was a nice prawn. But I didn't like the crab leg, the villain of this creation, making the mixture saltier and saltier, until nothing tasted good.
Our waitress warned us that, like a steakhouse, most entrées come without vegetables, and she pointed us toward the family-size side dishes listed along the right side of the menu. We chose "firecracker" green beans and broccoli with béarnaise sauce. The beans were garnished with macadamia nuts and swathed with what tasted like plain hoisin sauce straight from the bottle. Although tasty, it's another Asian ingredient featured out of context as an easy way to grab a flavor and run with it. (It's rare in authentic Chinese cooking to use hoisin sauce straight-up.) As for the broccoli, it wasn't just al dente, it was wood-hard. At home, a bright kitchen light revealed that the florets were old and yellow -- $9 compost.
One of Oceanaire's best features is its seafood-friendly wine list. It's a white-lover's festival, a deserving winner of a Wine Spectator award. At the Oyster Bar, I was impressed with the uncharacteristic mineral steeliness of the Bonterra Viognier that Sam ordered. (It'd have been a great palate-cleanser for last week's gourmet salt tasting.) Meanwhile, I'd latched onto something special: It's rare to find a list with more than one Sauvignon blanc from the Marlborough region of New Zealand, and here, they have three. I decided to do a horizontal tasting over two nights. Oyster Bay is available by the glass, so of course I chose it to go with the oysters. It proved the slightest of the trio. With the appetizers the next night, we enjoyed a bright, intensely citric Wairau River, which would also be a fabulous "oyster wine." And finally, for entrées, we turned to the Kathy Linskey -- a different flavor given the same grape, area, and year. It was balanced, refined, akin to some French Sauvignons -- a terrific fish wine. The much-acclaimed, pricier Linskey Gewürtztraminer is also available if you're looking for a match for the menu's spicier dishes.
Each Oceanaire restaurant has its own pastry chef, and Ly Tran's house-made desserts, like the veggies, are mostly family-size, to feed five or six easily. We liked a heavy, standard cheesecake garnished with cubes of caramelized apple. A humongous greenish-white object called "key lime pie" was not that, but a sweet, mile-high panna cotta with a touch of citrus, set atop a thin graham-crumb crust. It's delightful, so long as your mouth isn't set for key lime, a flavor that's unevenly mixed throughout, showing up in bursts of flavor. The fruit crisp had the same apples as bedecked the cheesecake, here topped with a "crisp" that reminded me of bad homemade granola -- pale, underbaked oats, each flake individually visible, that turned into gluey oat-paste when mingled with the hot filling. The sheer size and volume of the restaurant may be to blame -- somebody took this out of the oven about six minutes too soon.
Overall, I think Oceanaire's best dishes are its least ambitious ones. With the more elaborate entrées, you're entering the dangerous territory of complex dishes that must be executed rapidly by rushed line chefs feeding multitudes. The kitchen staff know enough to get the seafood off the heat when it's done, but they don't always have time to give the care that the entrée prices deserve. But enjoy a few Kumamotos, some zesty appetizers, and maybe a simple "nice piece of fish," and you'll be out of there with an affordable and tasty light meal that may even do your heart good.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Executive chef and partner Brian Malarkey grew up in Portland, Oregon, in a family that enjoyed eating well and cooking well. His grandmother had a beach house at the coast, where James Beard was a frequent guest. "He divided his time between Portland and the coast, and my grandmother and all her friends did the same -- they all had summer homes by the seaside. My father always says, 'Your grandmother was a great, great chef until she would have to do a dinner with James Beard, and then she'd burn and ruin everything' -- imagine the pressure of cooking for him! I was always in the kitchen, hanging out with her, helping, and my mother also cooked a lot. She was a single mom, so when she wasn't around -- we grew up on a ranch, and she was often out taking care of the horses -- I would cook up some food for my brother and me, and I always enjoyed doing it."
When he decided to become a professional chef, Malarkey studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Portland, then found a job at Citrus, famed chef Michel Richard's Los Angeles restaurant. After that he did a stint traveling and eating in Europe and North Africa. "From there I moved to Minneapolis. I was helping my uncle with photography, and I worked at different restaurants, which broadened my horizons. I joined the Oceanaire Group [which started in Minneapolis], because I knew they were going to be building a restaurant in Seattle, and I wanted to get back to the Northwest. From there, because I'd had work history in California, if I did what I was supposed to do and met all the expectations, I was going to be made a partner in San Diego. And I was fortunate enough to come down here and find Michael Mitchell [the manager/partner], and it's been a really great relationship ever since."
At all Oceanaire restaurants, the executive chef becomes a partner in the restaurant. "It's the greatest concept I've run into," says Malarkey, "because all of the chefs have a lot of freedom on the menu. We have about 60 percent of the menu where we don't have to talk to anyone about it -- as long as we serve the crab cakes and the hash brown potatoes, we really have a lot of freedom to buy from our individual vendors, change the menu on a daily basis, bring in all the different seafoods that we want. We put four new meat items on the menu yesterday -- we don't have to ask anyone, we just do it. Our dessert chef, Ly Tran, gets to fly around and help other locations with their desserts, and she has as much freedom as the rest of us to put on her own signature desserts. They put a lot of trust in their chefs. We are limited only by our imaginations. We get to make the fish in all different preparations -- from French to Italian to Japanese to Mexican to Pacific Rim.... It's like a cooking university here. A lot of the line cooks bring ideas and we work on them, because it gives them a lot of pride to put something on the menu.
"You get all the support of a big restaurant, yet we get to act like individual restaurants. At each Oceanaire, you're going to find different things, according to the region and the different chefs' personalities and tastes. And I'm really happy to be down here in San Diego amongst a great group of chefs. This is an expanding time for food in San Diego.... It's so much fun, there's so much energy, and we all are sharing purveyors, sharing employees, sharing ideas."