Sea What I Mean

The Oceanaire Seafood Room
1300 Nicollet Mall (Hyatt Regency Center), Mpls.; (612) 333-2277
Hours: Sunday-Thursday 5 p.m.-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5 p.m.-11 p.m.

My first oyster experiences were all about digging up the rocklike morsels from the oily, silty marshes beside our house in Wellfleet, Cape Cod. I had special "clamming" shoes, old sneakers that I got to wear right into the sucking black silt of low tide. Ben, my German shepherd, would race around in the mud, razor clams would squirt up at him, and he would bark at their holes. I would dig with sand toys and hands until Ben and I found at least two oysters, and sometimes as many as a dozen, and put them in a wire basket that allowed mud to sluice through. (Would the dog carry the basket? No. Not far.)

My mother would rinse off the beauties in the sink and pry them open, talking as she went: "Oh, open you! Oh, stubborn!" And then she would proceed to, by all appearances, eat rocks. Thus began a passion for the unattractive bivalve that has lasted for the rest of my life, except for one year's bitter hatred: At fourteen I worked mornings pulling the beards off mussels, afternoons shucking oysters. At night I'd look out at the boats and wish weak harvests upon them.

Then I moved here. Once, at a self-styled "oyster bar" that has mercifully closed, a server explained to me that oysters alwayshad squirmy worms in them. Too bad I hadn't yet heard California-cuisine guru Alice Waters's speech at last month's Twin Cities Food and Wine Experience, or I would have quoted her in reply: "There are oysters and there are oysters.There is a great difference between oystersand oysters that have been out of the water for four or five days--they're still alive, but they're not alive."

The Oceanaire Seafood Room commenced rescue of the oyster's--and, for that matter, all of the marine kingdom's--local reputation in November. The restaurant relies on a complicated infrastructure dedicated to getting fish from the world's oceans to your plate while it's still fish; they buy seafood directly from oceanside vendors, pick up merchandise from the airport several times a day, unpack and fillet the critters in a specially made room-sized refrigerator, and print up new menus daily to reflect the global "catch." On any given day, the menu may feature oysters from the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Gulf of Mexico, along with salmon from Iceland, monchong from Hawaii, mahi mahi from Costa Rica, sea bass from Chile, and snapper from Africa's Lake Victoria. This awesome machinery of fresh seafood delivery is a welcome addition to prairie life, and the opulent oyster bar may qualify as the best culinary development to hit Minneapolis since the Bush administration.

You see the display as soon as you set foot in Oceanaire's door--it's a column of dark oak, shiny brass, and mountains of ice on top of which outsize lobster shells, like ugly little gods, glare at the dining rooms. That ice holds as many as a dozen different oysters from as many bays (there are a few species of oyster, but the very same species can grow to different sizes and taste drastically different depending on the bay in which it lived), and you can spend a lovely evening snooping around, ordering one of every kind that looks good, then placing another order for the ones you like best. The little charmers are shucked to order and arrive at the table on a bed of ice with a pair of ramekins holding cocktail sauce and a shallot vinaigrette.

On my visits choices included tiny, briny Kumamoto oysters from Oregon ($2.25 each)--dark and quarter-size, tasting mineral-rich and brightly seaweedy. There were soft, marshy oysters from Washington's Sund Creek ($1.60) and warm, mellow ones from British Columbia's Penrose Bay ($2). As different from the Kumamotos as peaches are from apricots were Belon oysters from Maine ($2.50)--big, dark shells with meat bright, golden, and lively as bay wind.

I could just sit in an Oceanaire booth slurping oysters and remembering Ben until the apocalypse; perhaps that's why I've never been thrilled with the cooked appetizers. Crab cakes ($8.95 for one as an appetizer, $17.95 for two as an entrée) were certainly crab-filled, but the eggy, soufflé-like balloons lacked the scruffy succulence I associate with the best crab cakes. House-cured salmon ($6.95) was a generous portion of sugar-sweet gravlax served with lots of capers and chopped onions that, when I had it, tasted as if it had been plated up far too long ago.

I ordered clams casino ($8.95) out of curiosity and was duly impressed to see that the little cherrystones arrived in a pie pan of rock salt, just like the history books say they should. And guess what--baking things on beds of salt makes them awfully salty, so order another drink.

The fish entrées, on the other hand, follow the same glorious path the oysters do--pampered creatures are treated elegantly, with the creative presentations showcasing, never overwhelming, the fundamental flavors. My favorite dish was two fillets of Maine lemon sole flour-dredged, sautéed, and served on a pool of sweet lobster bisque topped by a dice of braised parsnips ($26.95). The fish was beautifully plump, tender, and white as snow, the bisque sherry-laced and decadently rich, and the bite of the parsnips kept everything from melting together in a sweet haze.

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