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Oceanaire Seafood Room clearly aims to be a seafood restaurant for the ages. Which age it ultimately succeeds in emulating, however, is open to debate. The dining room is an approximation of the kind of supper clubs that one would supposedly have found on luxury ocean liners in the teens and ’20s. But despite the nautical touches (stuffed trophy fish leaping across the walls, a separate “Captain’s List” for anyone who wants to spend a fortune on wine), the restaurant seems more like the kind of place Walter Winchell would’ve gone for a scoop. The curved red-leather booths, the creamed corn, the iceberg-lettuce wedges, the oyster crackers, the swing music blaring in all its monophonic glory: All are here, suggesting to diners that the high fliers of our grandparents’ generation might have had it just as good as we doeven as the restaurant, with its glistening fresh Florida wahoo, newly legal Iranian caviar, and pristine Washington State oysters, reassures us that such a thing could never be possible.
Despite its judiciously appointed retro stage set, Oceanaire could exist only circa right-about-now. For starters, the art-deco menu is a miracle of desktop publishing. The document always looks the same, but its ever-changing contents are dictated by the daily whims of supply and air-freight efficiency. The New Zealand tarakihi, for example, is available only on my first visit, and the rich Hog Island oysters that I slurp joyously on Trip 2 and covet again on Trip 3 are nowhere to be found on Trip 4. Presumably, seafood lovers of the pre-FedEx era didn’t even dream of enjoying so many far-flung richesat least not in one place.
The wait staff does a good job of diffusing concern over the fact that Oceanaire’s flagship is located in Minneapolis. The flown-in catch at both restaurants, one employee argues, is as fresh as it is in New York or San Francisco, and nothing that we’re served suggests that raw ingredients are a problem. In fact, there are few local restaurants that so thoroughly satisfy an oyster jones. If you have to sit and wait for a table, do so at the raw bar, where a spread of pickle points, belons, and wild Long Island bluepoints will likely prompt you to order another round before the night’s through. The crab cakes, barely bound and as big as baseballs, are little more than an excuse to gorge yourself on lump meat. They’re as good as any in town.
Oceanaire’s dueling retro and modern sensibilities collide on its menu. Table condiments like Old Bay, sea salt, and Tabasco are all set out in their store-bought containers, suggesting a lack of fussiness that the restaurant’s simplest items often reinforce. Side dishes are offered, steakhouse style, in giant portions; the loud crackle of the hash browns is such a kick that we nearly finish a serving that’s as big around as an LP. The rice pilaf, studded with carrots, celery, and tiny pearl onions, reminds us how nice the dish can be when it doesn’t come from a box.
The spinach salad is, like all the salads, big enough for two, and its sweet, warm bacon dressing binds nicely with its buttery croutons after the whole thing’s tossed and served tableside. Clam chowder is nothing fancyjust a thick creamy brew that tastes of the sea. And cioppino, the classic San Francisco seafood stew, offers up a bounty of plump mussels, sweet shrimp, and clams; the planks of toast balancing on the ridge of the bowl taste better once you splash them around in the herb-scented broth.
The pitfall of retro cuisine is that it can underscore why certain dishes and techniques fell out of favor in the first place. The souplike shrimp pan roast is so thick with butter and cream that you may want to have a doctor on hand, and the towering baked Alaska that the waiters trumpet like the Second Coming is little more than a marshmallow caught on fire. I usually love clams casino, but the platter I’m served looks to have been fumbled on its way from the kitchen. The bed of rock salt is shifted to one side, littered with bits of bacon that are supposed to be perched on the oysters.
Oceanaire’s stabs at nouvelle cuisine are similarly hit-or-miss. Encased in a cornmeal batter that provokes memories of great fried chicken, the whole fried Arctic char is deboned at the table. Its meat is lovely, firm, and flavorful, and the honey-thickened citrus-soy glaze makes up for any moisture lost in cooking. Two grilled items, a rockfish entree and a calamari appetizer, are supported by marvelous sides; the former is surrounded by a pool of creamy golden polenta, and the latter encircles a bright pineapple salad. Unfortunately, each bite of the seafood carries a strange, fuel-like flavor from the grill. The Pacific gray sole is much more successful: A melon-sized lump of meat bathed in beurre blanc and stuffed with blue crab, shrimp, and brie, it’s the kind of dish that demands to be eaten with something sophisticated, preferably from the Captain’s List.
No restaurant that serves root-beer floats and cookies with milk for dessert can be justly accused of elitism, and Oceanaire does go to considerable lengths to give you your money’s worth. Most entrees run about 23 bucks, and that includes a half-loaf of sourdough bread (you can get more if you want) and an iced relish tray that includes some truly delicious pickled herring. What’s more, the Martha Stewart-inspired men’s bathroom is nearly as big as my apartment, and the dish portions range from generous to give-me-a-break gigantic. On one night, a neighboring diner yelps at the site of a platter containing enough fried seafood to fill a backpack. It’s one of Oceanaire’s better dishes, and it makes me wonder if people are actually taking home the inevitable remains to reheat for tomorrow’s lunch. Do fried oysters keep? And is it really necessary to flatter diners two generations removed from the Depression with such crass excess?
Oceanaire Seafood Room, 1201 F St. NW, (202) 347-2277.
Citing a past column on James Carville and Mary Matalin’s new baby, West 24, one reader was compelled to point out that other strange bedfellows have recently emerged as restaurateurs. Democratic heavy Tom Boggs recently opened the Caucus Room with former Republican National Committee Chair Haley Barbour. If you thought that the proprietors’ opposing political views might, when mixed, create a colorful reaction that resulted in a new, unpredictable kind of restaurant in which to do political business, you should know that, well, it just didn’t happen. The dark wood, starched white tablecloths, and cigar-chomping clientele all look pretty familiar. Some Sam & Harry’s folks help run the place, so it’s no great surprise that the steaks are well-aged or that the California reds are nearly rich enough to chew. And lest you feel too far removed from headquarters to fully relax, the hostess says that fax, stock-quote, messenger, and vote-notification services are all in the works.
The Caucus Room, 401 9th St. NW, (202) 393-1300. Brett Anderson
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