There were two Cincinnati Reds at tables near us at The Oceanaire Seafood Room the other night, Adam Dunn and Corey Patterson. Professional athletes -- you'd have to be one to polish off the portions at this new chic spot downtown. But Oceanaire is not all about quantity. There are some very creative and thoughtful treatments for excellent, high quality fish, and that puts Oceanaire in the big leagues.
It's great to see a full house in a downtown restaurant on a Monday. No special event at the Aronoff, no Reds game (obviously!) -- just folks dining out in the center of the city. Imagine that!
We arrived ahead of the crowd and were led to a high-backed wooden booth lined with soft leather cushions. Oceanaire has a lot of tasteful ocean liner touches in the décor -- the nicest being the Art Deco lighting overhead and the fancy restrooms with plush cotton towels. The white tablecloths were crisp and fresh, but my first clue that we were in a first class establishment came when the server switched my white linen napkin for black, "to match your slacks." Don't want to take a chance on contrasting lint!
The menu is printed daily, reflecting the seafood that's shipped in twice a day -- once in the morning and once in the evening. Today's catch is listed at the top, and while six selections are served simply broiled or grilled ($19.95-$32.95), most are featured in preparations that make choosing between them a challenge.
There's a large selection of fresh oysters on the half shell ($1.99-$2.75 each), and a full raw bar. A selection of shellfish is $89 for a large platter, $44 for a small. Classy Swing music played as we nibbled on fresh sourdough bread and a relish tray with pleasant, light-pickled herring -- not your bubbe's schmaltzy herring in sour cream!
My cocktail antennae were pinging, so I requested a perfect Manhattan. Alas, no rye in the house. The wine list is impressive, so I settled for a glass of Estancia Syrah ($12) and my friend chose the Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc ($12). I wouldn't hesitate, though, to ask for a pairing suggestion based on what you want to eat. Our server and the rest of the staff we met were knowledgeable and helpful.
After a delicious complimentary amuse bouche of halibut seviche, we started off with a brilliant appetizer: halibut cheeks breaded with panko, pan fried and served over a Thai chili buerre blanc ($13.95). Outstanding fish, beautifully presented, and the flavors were note perfect. I love fusion cuisine that's not self-conscious, and this was a perfect blend of Eastern and Western flavors, down to the mango slivers and black sesame-seed garnish.
I fell for a heartfelt description of the quality of the tomatoes and ordered a tomato, mozzarella and red onion salad ($11.95). It was lovely to look at and the onions were perfect, but the salad was served too cold -- the refrigerator had undermined the flavor the tomatoes might have had. The Mixed Baby Greens salad ($9.95) was garnished with pickled watermelon slivers and pistachio crusted goat cheese, which would have been better warm.
Choosing entrées was tough, with choices like "black and bleu" gulf snapper and Japanese sea scallops, but we decided to try two fish we'd never had before. I went with the whole Icelandic Arctic Char ($38.95), a fantastic pinkish-fleshed fish, flash fried and reminiscent of a very light, sweet, delicate salmon. My friend selected pan-seared New Zealand Barramundi ($28.95). The barramundi was meatier, like tuna, and stood up well to the full-flavored, bacon-wilted spinach and horseradish butter that accompanied it. They were both incredibly delicious, but the portions were immense. The char would have fed a family -- I had the leftovers, with their wonderful ginger-soy glaze, on salad for lunch and dinner the next day.
Side dishes were oversized but irresistible. I had to taste the roasted beets ($8.95), which were a little too sweet, but the King Crab mac n' cheese ($12.95) was a crowd pleaser -- rich, buttery cheese sauce on orecchiette, mixed with generous lumps of crabmeat. Choices included asparagus with hollandaise and sour cream mashed Yukon potatoes -- nothing exotic, but all well-executed.
After we had enough leftovers boxed away that groceries were superfluous, we still had to try dessert. I was dying for a strawberry tiramisu that our server described in loving detail -- only to return to report it had sold out.
Our second choice, key lime pie ($9.95), was tasty, but after a few bites there's not much new to tempt your mouth. So why serve a wedge the size of an ocean liner's hull? Maybe it's just part of the theme. Oceanaire's food was more creative and better prepared than I had anticipated, and I loved the service and the setting. It's only a little pricier than a night in the Reds' diamond seats, and I'd still call it a major-league addition to downtown dining.
OCEANAIRE SEAFOOD ROOM
Go: 580 Walnut St., Downtown
Hours: 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 5-9 p.m. Sunday
Entrée Prices: $22.95-$38.95
Payment: Major credit cards
Red Meat Options: There is some red meat, but you've got to read the fine print
Accessibility: Fully accessible