The Oceanaire is a piscatorial paradise

You wouldn’t think that a seafood restaurant based in landlocked Minnesota would make much of a splash in seafood-rich Chesapeake Bay country. But the Oceanaire Seafood Room can hold its own and then some with the best that Washington, Baltimore or anywhere on the Eastern Shore has to offer.
patrick g. ryan
Oceanaire Executive Chef Rob Klink’s menu includes some 25 varieties of seafood flown in daily.

Proving that access to the freshest seafood available is a matter of logistics rather than location, Oceanaire serves up a broad array of straight-off-the-fishing-boat fare that is as good as any you can find on America’s three coastal regions. The complex menu includes some 25 varieties of “fresh today” seafood flown in daily, including Ecuadorian mahi-mahi, Icelandic loup de mer, Cape Hatteras swordfish and Florida red snapper.

The 9,000-square-foot rest-aurant, which opened in September 2000, has the look and feel of an art deco 1930s ocean liner, with a 250-seat cherry-wood-paneled main dining room, curved zinc-topped raw bar and two private dining rooms, all bathed in soothing light-blue fluorescent lights embedded in a curvilinear ceiling.

From the dozen varieties of oysters, such as the luscious tiny Kumamotos from Oregon and briny Duck Islands from Connecticut that I and two colleagues slurped down Tuesday night, to the 20 or so seafood specialties like my superb grilled Alaskan halibut “T-bone” ($28.95) to the decadent baked Alaska ($6.95) we shared for dessert, there wasn’t a false note, including the silky-smooth service from Christian, our friendly waiter from Lima, Peru.

Well, there was one, which was that I had my heart set on probably the best fish I’ve ever tasted, the crispy fried whole Arctic char, but unfortunately it wasn’t on the menu that day. Too bad. It’s a 2- to 3-pound monster dipped in buttermilk and flour and deep-fried — head, fins, tail and all — that tastes like a cross between salmon and trout.

My companions, The Hill’s Senate reporter, Geoff Earle, and Photo Editor Pat Ryan, let me share their dozen oysters, which compelled me to share some of my surgically thin translucent slices of house-cured “black pearl” salmon, served with a tangy mustard sauce and capers ($7.95).

They also let me sample their entrees: Geoff’s pan-seared Cape May sea scallops, served with peas and red onion risotto ($32.95) and Pat’s broiled shrimp scampi ($27.95). Both were outstanding, although I was disappointed that neither chose more hard-to-find delicacies like pan-seared Alaskan halibut cheeks or grilled Panamanian bigeye tuna.

Portions are huge here, and since we’d already filled up on the home-baked sourdough bread and complimentary tray of pickled herring and crudités, we passed up the excellent side dishes like the hashed brown potatoes à la Oceanaire ($7.45), a gargantuan dish that’s loaded with onion, bacon and Tabasco and is a meal in itself.

Oceanaire has an extensive and well-chosen wine list, and we enjoyed a bottle of one of California’s best, the Sonoma-Cutrer Russian Ranches chardonnay ($54).

But the food, as good as it is, was almost a sidelight to some of our fellow diners.

In one nearby booth, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and wife Diane were celebrating his 64th birthday as he prepared to try to forge a compromise in the judicial filibuster fight, while former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson dined in another with a colleague from his new law firm, Akin Gump. All were within earshot of healthcare lobbyist Fred Graefe and Dan Danner and Ryan Peebles of the National Federation of Independent Business.

Not surprising, two Minnesota Republicans, Sen. Norm Coleman and Rep. John Kline, were sitting nearby, Coleman with two campaign aides from St. Paul and Kline with businessmen from his district who want to sell a blood substitute to the Pentagon. Kline told me that his son, a major in the 101st Airborne, will probably be heading for Iraq shortly.
Three other House members — Dave Camp (R-Mich.), Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.) — were also seated nearby, the latter with his wife, Kitty, and his mother-in-law. As I waited for my valet-parked car ($7), I chatted with Stratton Liapis and his wife, who own Bullfeathers on Capitol Hill and often dine at Oceanaire.

Finally, I chatted with two personable young waiters, Anthony Jackson and Emily Froehle, whose stepfather was press secretary for former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura and is now advising Kelly Doran, a Democrat running for the seat of retiring Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.).

The local Oceanaire was the first opened after the mother ship in Minneapolis, and there are now satellites in Seattle, Dallas, Indianapolis, San Diego, Atlanta and, in the fall, Baltimore.

Former President Clinton showed up last week with his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), and in-laws. He worked the dining room, shaking hands and signing autographs, and got a standing ovation. I’d give the same to this impressive restaurant.