SEA YOU THERE: The Oceanaire Seafood Room is like a steak house for the fishy set.
The Oceanaire, a name intended to evoke 1930s luxury liners, is a very upscale seafood restaurant for downtown, though it may end up being more important for power lunches than big dates or family celebrations. The former lobby of the old State Street Bank is large and open, with columns and paneling, potted plants and game-fish trophies, but my initial impression of both the menu and the room was that of an “old-time steak house.” Only when I went to the men’s room, with its art-deco lettering and porthole-style wall lamps, did the big-band soundtrack bring me around to the SS Queen Mary idea.
The Oceanaire Seafood Room | 40 Court Street, Boston | Open Mon–Thurs, 5–10 pm; Fri and Sat, 5–11 pm; and Sun, 5–9 pm | AE, DC, DI, MC, VI | Full bar | Valet parking: $18 | Sidewalk-level access | 617.742.2277
The chain — there are 15 other Oceanaires — is committed to retro luxury and service à la the Ritz. The Boston location serves about 20 seafood species daily, up there with Legal Sea Foods, and has an oyster bar to rival Jasper White’s Summer Shack. Executive chef Dan Enos is a New Englander who used to work for the superior steak-house chain the Capital Grille — so the steaks-and-chops alternatives aren’t neglected, and the local seafood will be noticed. (The restaurant’s size does mean compromises, however: it didn’t have the seasonal Nantucket Bay scallops on our night, though the Georges Bank sea scallops were mighty fine.)
Food began traditionally with soft rolls and butter. But food also began in the modern mode, with a tiny amuse bouche of chopped crabmeat in a kind of ceviche mix. The rest of our meal featured another dichotomy, this one between some rather affordable dishes and some outlandish ones. As an outlandish appetizer, you’ll want the “Colossal lump crab meat cocktail” ($18.95), which is everyone’s dream of enough picked crab to make an entire meal. The Maine smoked seafood trio ($14.95) features excellent salmon and mussels, plus superb trout. The only issue with this is that all the ingredients are farmed, and on a good day you can buy them in Whole Foods and make your own dish at home. Bibb salad ($10.95) is not outsized, but it was perfectly made and dressed with local blue cheese, candied walnuts, and golden raisins. The spinach salad ($7.95) is quite large, with an interesting dressing full of soft flakes that taste like bacon but have no crunch.
Escargot ($9.95) are served under a fine puff pastry, so instead of the shells, you have the snails and garlic butter in the dimpled plate, with pastry on top. The clam chowder ($4.95) is small but full of clams, potatoes, and actual seafood flavor. A special lobster bisque ($8.95) is larger and richer, but not overladen with lobster meat. Both soups are strong on pepper. We didn’t get to the eight kinds of oysters ($2.65 to $2.95 each), but an order of four littleneck clams ($11) showed the necessary freshness and sweet flavor.
You would probably be pretty happy with a reasonable entrée like the Portuguese fish stew ($24.95). The broth is inedibly salty and peppery on its own, but it worked with each piece of fish (probably haddock and swordfish), cherrystone clams, mussels, and sea scallops. Another fine option is eight fish “simply grilled or broiled”; the cheapest, Arctic char ($21.95), happens to be one of my favorites. This piece was nicely crosshatched on the grill, and full of flavor.
Entrées come mostly without vegetables or starch, so one orders side dishes as they would at a steak house. The positive news is that side dishes are huge and good. One member of my party ordered the macaroni and cheese ($9.95) as her entrée and could only finish half of it. It wasn’t too creamy, but had delectable meaty and Gruyère flavors. Oceanaire cole slaw ($5) is heaped vertically and walled in with four slices of beefsteak tomato. I don’t eat winter tomatoes, but the slaw is the old-fashioned kind with celery seeds, which I liked. Green beans amandine ($8.95) have a good dose of garlic along with the almonds, and sautéed spinach ($8.95) has whole cloves of roasted garlic and a lemony bite, too.
For the big spenders, herb-grilled Mediterranean bronzini ($36.95), a fresh piece of the larger size of this farmed sea bass, comes with handsome grill marks and some herbal-stuffing flavor. You want to have one of these on the table because the sauceboat of truffle vinaigrette goes on everything. Seared Cape Sable halibut ($38.95) is a truly glorious chunk of lighter white fish, and its underlying white-bean stew with asparagus and some dried tomatoes makes for a complete dinner.