"I feel like a menace to society," said my friend with a laugh, taking another gleeful crack at the chilled lobster in front of him, the pressure propelling yet another shot of aromatic juice in all directions. When a whole white arctic char was de-boned tableside, the server's practiced tug extracting the fish's delicate skeletal system fully intact, my young friends were suitably impressed. They became positively wide-eyed when a blazing baked Alaska proved to be the ultimate in showy dinner theater.
Yes, dining at the Oceanaire Seafood Room can be a lot of fun. I'd forgotten that. But here's another detail that had slipped my mind: It can be expensive. How expensive? Let's just say that that blood-curdling sound you hear is my boss, getting a look at my expense report. And that scent? It's a slight whiff of that-was-then-this-is-now.
When the restaurant opened in 1998, it was a watershed -- no pun intended, honest -- moment in Twin Cities dining-out history, an affirmation that land-locked Minnesota had an appetite for a complex assortment of fresh- daily seafood. The owners, Parasole Restaurant Holdings, had clearly struck upon something original and exciting.
But the benchmark has shifted during the intervening 14 years. Seafood selection and preparation has improved exponentially in restaurants all over town. Meanwhile, the Oceanaire's innovative edge seems to have dulled. Parasole spun it off in 2001 and the company expanded across the country until it slammed head-on into the Great Recession. Next stop: Chapter 11 bankruptcy. In 2010, the company was purchased by deep-pocketed Landry's Restaurants Inc., a Texas-based conglomerate behind a number of chains, including the Rainforest Cafe.
Just as Macy's has repositioned the Store Formerly Known as Dayton's, Landry's has tweaked the Oceanaire. What I notice (and lament) most is a slimmer, less quirky fresh-fish selection. On a recent menu that was front-loaded with shrimp, salmon, trout, scallops and other rote items, finding blue marlin felt like a triumph.
And is it just me, or is the cooking less refined? As I grazed my way across the menu, more often than not I found myself thinking about all the other, better -- and, yes, far less expensive -- versions of similar dishes available elsewhere. That whole arctic char, for example, which is dredged in buttermilk and flour and rather artlessly deep-fried. The pink flesh wasn't dry, exactly, but it wasn't the succulent, flavorful experience it should have been, and its pool of citrus-soy sauce was an exercise in saltiness. At $44.95, it's not unreasonable to expect more.
Crab cake heaven
Yes, the jumbo-sized shrimp cocktail is agreeably snappy, the abundant chilled shellfish is similarly pleasant and the raw oyster selection is first-rate. In fact, the kitchen is at its most reliable when it avails itself of the grill or the broiler and keeps the embellishments (butter, lemon) to a minimum. I'm still relishing the striking color and texture of broiled Atlantic salmon and the gorgeously pristine slab of carefully grilled wild Alaskan halibut. Emphasis on slab, because that thing was enormous; a third of the portion at half the $38 price would have more than sufficed.
Things become a little rocky when the cooking takes what a friend of mine likes to call a "chef-ey" turn. It's tough to say which was more disappointing: that the kitchen did such a C-minus job of searing scallops -- a skill that should be second nature -- or that they were paired with such discombobulated soy, honey, miso and chile pepper accents. A tuna poke, with velvety pink raw fish stacked between crispy wafers, was alarmingly overspiced.
Desserts are Hindenburg-huge, as if corporate decision-makers have never had a quantity-vs.-quality debate. Even the side dishes are uneven: fantastic matchstick-cut fries and ultra-creamy sour cream-laced mashed potatoes cannot be improved upon, yet they're on the same list with fibrous-yet-limp asparagus and greasy wild rice pilaf. This lack of discipline is not the way I remember the Oceanaire of old.
One thing that hasn't changed, thank heavens, is the crab cakes, which remain, without question, one of the city's pinnacle culinary experiences and the standard by which all others should be measured. These paragons of glorious excess are disarmingly simple, a barely-bound-together mound of sweet, tender hunks of crab, finished with flecks of parsley and browned to delectable perfection. At $17.95 a pop they're not cheap, but they're worth every shekel, and then some.
Service, setting up and down
Interactions with the service crew ran the gamut. One staffer pitched such a relentlessly hard upsell that I momentarily wondered if his day job was a commission-only sales job at a cut-rate electronics store. Another was friendliness personified, but seemed to view her role as more supporting player than leading lady, that's how little face time we actually received. A third was blandly efficient and little else. "Given these prices, shouldn't we expect more than someone phoning it in?" asked my friend. In a word, yes.
Still, everyone toiling behind the bar possesses the traits that diners everywhere hope to encounter in a server: Smart, funny, observant, polite; no wonder it's my favorite seat in the house. The hyper-attentive squadron of bus boys (surely there is a less sexist and ageist title for this key job category?) have clearly been trained to never leave a water glass less than three-quarters full. Oh, and a virtual chorus of cheery greeters are poised to welcome one and all at the front door.
Three cheers for the infinitely wise decision to say goodbye to the restaurant's soul-sucking location deep within the Hyatt Regency Hotel and move into a far livelier street-level address at 6th Street and Nicollet Mall. Where the old place took its design cues from a 1930s ocean liner -- or at least a stylized one in a revival of Cole Porter's "Anything Goes" -- the new location's white-and-sapphire setting is less distinctive, looks-wise. It's slick, but soulless, and a tad cramped. But it's on the sidewalk, a vast improvement.
Another saving grace is the restaurant's newfound lunch service. The menu is an abbreviated version of dinner, and it's at it best when, once again, the kitchen embraces simplicity: crispy beer-battered cod with those fantastic matchstick fries, tender mussels steamed in white wine, a decent shrimp scampi. Most successful is an ever-changing piece of grilled fish -- salmon, barramundi -- that's paired with those eat-every-morsel mashed potatoes and a few spears of asparagus. It's $15.95, and each iteration I encountered was just about perfect.
Yet the menu isn't immune to indifference. Salads, from a long list, are surprisingly dull. Blackened cod tacos on tender corn tortillas are fine, but nothing I couldn't get off a neighborhood food truck. The burger is juicy and flavorful, but, come on, a burger? Chef Robert Wohlfeil wisely slips those crab cakes into modestly garnished sliders, or, even better, as the crowning achievement in a club sandwich. It's an inspired idea. More of these, please.
- Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @ricknelsonstrib