Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Coming Soon: The Oceanaire Seafood Room

I am excited about a new Minneapolis-based seafood chain opening in the Galleria area this fall -- The Oceanaire Seafood Room. I tried the Dallas location last night and was very impressed.

I was not inclined to like the Oceanaire. I despise chain restaurants. They tend to lack real character. And the food usually lacks innovation. More importantly, my mother told me never to order seafood more than 60 miles from the ocean. Dallas is about 300 miles from the ocean. And the Oceanaire is based in Minnesota.

But the Oceanaire works because it is part of a relatively new trend that I call "airmailed seafood." High end seafood chains send buyers around the world to find interesting seafood, flash freeze it, and then airmail it overnight to the kitchens. As my waiter at the Oceanaire said, "most of our fish were swimming yesterday." That is pretty remarkable when the fish come from all over the world. For airmailed seafood, a big chain has a real advantage because of its buying power.

Consider two of Houston's best seafood restaurants -- Pesce and McCormick & Schmick's. Pesce is tops for gourmet seafood preparations in Houston. But it is not a chain, and their menu does not offer that much variety in the kinds of seafood. In contrast, McCormick & Schmick's is a huge chain. They have far more buying power, and therefore a much greater variety. For instance, on an average night, McCormick usually offers at least 12 different kinds of oysters from all over North America, plus a variety of fish like thresher shark from California, black grouper from the South Atlantic, or monkfish from New Jersey. Pesce has more interesting fish preparations. McCormick has more interesting fish.

The Oceanaire is a lot like McCormick & Schmick's - a huge variety of airmailed seafood. But if my one dish is any indication, the Oceanaire may be slightly better. I ordered a pan seared Virginian black sea bass, a fish I had never had. It was a thick white fish similar to black cod or Chilean sea bass, but the individual flakes of fish were thicker. Although I rarely eat fish skin, this skin had a tasty, crunchy crust. The fish was served with polenta and some sauteed tomatoes. The preparation was simple, but all the elements worked together to provide contrasting and complementing textures and flavors. Somewhere in the corporate hierarchy, a smart chef had given this fish a lot of thought and individual attention.

Like McCormick, the Oceanaire is purposefully retro. The inside is simultaneously elegant and cheesy. It is made to resemble a dining room in a 1930s cruise ship. The prices seeme higher than McCormick, but then the portions are larger. The waiter told me twice that most fish portions are over 18 oz. It is a good restaurant to split an appetizer, an entree, and a side.

Although scheduled opening dates frequently change, the Oceanaire currently plans to open here in late October or early November. If you decide to go, make a reservation. In Dallas, on a Tuesday night, the Oceanaire was reservation-only and every table was full.

(UPDATE: The Oceanaire, Houston is open for business, and I have tried it.)

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