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 always had 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 oysters and 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.
If sole with cream has a slightly retro air to it, a strip of grilled white sturgeon ($22.95) was as contemporary as could be: The fillet was topped with a Japanese-style vinegared cucumber salad, and accompanied by a light, cayenne-touched peanut sauce, a lovely showcase for the nutty, oily fish. Less ambitious dishes were satisfying in different ways: A fisherman's platter of bread-crumb-battered, deep-fried fish, shrimp, scallops, and oysters ($19.95) served with a suitcase-sized portion of matchstick French fries reminded me of the takeout from salt-marsh fish shacks in New England. While the dish would be more at home in a paper sack than on a linen tablecloth, I think if you stopped by after work and ordered the platter--to share, it's gargantuan--with a couple of beers, you could just about feel the sand in your flip-flops.
I ordered side dishes every time I was at the Oceanaire, though in retrospect I couldn't tell you why; I only ever picked at them in the face of the fishy bounty. Manny's regulars will be pleased to note that the fat stalks of asparagus and hollandaise sauce ($6.95), crisp, skillet-browned discs of hashbrowns ($6.95), and pillowy drifts of mashed potatoes ($6.50) seem like they could have been trotted across the hall from the steak house.
The side-dish resemblance isn't accidental. Oceanaire is the newest jewel in the many crowns of Minneapolis's all-powerful Parasole group, the company that has brought you Manny's Steakhouse, Figlio, the Good Earth restaurants, Muffuletta in the Park, and, originally, Buca. (Buca is now is an independent entity.) These folks have mastered the art of the destination restaurant, and Oceanaire is no exception: Its dining rooms are all burnished, dark, red wood, glowing lights, and colorful mounted fish, with the general impression halfway between the QE2 and a Cab Calloway-era nightclub. And be still my blasé heart: One Saturday night about 7:30 three--count 'em, three--bottles of champagne were popping at neighboring tables while a busboy raced past holding shiny chrome wine buckets: I felt like Nora Charles in the very center of the most happening part of the universe.
To do Thin Man-style drinking here would be more comfortable with a fictional heiress's budget, too: Most of the bottles for your bucket are priced at two or even three times retail. While the Chardonnay-dominated wine list does have a nice breadth of prices ($17-$175) there isn't a bargain on it. The Oceanaire's cocktail list features retro charmers like the Rusty Nail, Singapore Sling, Ramos Gin Fizz, and champagne cocktail (cocktails run $5.75-$8). One request, though: A small investment in a citrus juicer would much improve the cocktails. No one really wants a daiquiri made with Rose's lime juice.
Other than that, it's hard to think of how the Oceanaire's food and atmosphere could be improved, which probably explains the crowds that pack the hotspot and make reservations difficult. The owners seem to have taken the best from their experiences with a Buca (thorough theming and festive atmosphere) and Manny's (exquisite portions of critter, clubbiness, ticket-boosting side dishes).
Want more proof of dining magnificence? Consider the Baked Alaska. Most Oceanaire desserts follow the Manny's pattern--giant hunks of very sweet things meant more as triumphs of gluttony than culinary art. But the Baked Alaska ($5.95) deserves tourist-destination status. Your server brings out a white, Dairy Queen-style spiral tower of toasted meringue and depending on his or her style either sets fire to a little pitcher of brandy and then pours the flaming liquid over the dessert or pours brandy over the dessert and then sets it ablaze. Either way blue, yellow, utterly entrancing flames curl around the snow-white peaks.
When the fire goes out, there's a toasty shell of meringue around chocolate ice cream, which itself rests on a slice of chocolate cake. It tastes great, as far as ice cream and meringue go, but I'd be just as happy to simply watch the presentation again and again all night, like vaudeville. There may be desserts and desserts, but dancing flames on meringue have no italicized equivalent--they're as good as it gets.
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