The whole notion of presenting a gussied-up retro fish house to Philadelphians is not without its irony. After all, we helped invent the genre. But we also witnessed its sad decline, as the grand pepper-pot palaces eventually faded into frumpy neglect and irrelevance. Can interest in such a relic be revived in the era of chef-driven storefront bistros? Is there a place anymore for a plate of simply grilled fish?
The Oceanaire aims to serve it both ways, with a dual-concept menu that nods to unadorned chowder-house standbys, but also presents numerous dishes inspired by a considerably more contemporary feel. And it has a swimming chance with a chef like Anthony Bonett, a Striped Bass and Tony Clark alum who made his lasting lead-chef impression as a modernist at Opus 251.
One gets a quick sense of his skill with a dish like his almond-crusted halibut, a thick slice of luscious Alaskan fish posed over a zesty white gazpacho made from blended cucumbers and romaine. A sliced asparagus and roasted marcona-almond salad on top lends the final Spanish touch. A seared scallop special was equally stunning, the juicy white rounds paired with lentils and bittersweet candied kumquats scented with orange and cardamom.
Of course, the Oceanaire, by design, is not always so exotic. And it has taken time for Bonett to bring his big staff up to speed, which may explain why the early months focused more on mastering the menu's traditional core rather than the inventive fare, which only lately has picked up steam.
That's a good thing, because I don't sense this kitchen's heart has ever genuinely been jazzed by the mundane standards. Any kitchen can make a decent shrimp cocktail - and Oceanaire's is no exception. The restaurant's raw bar, a mound of ice that rounds the corner of the large and handsome lounge near the entrance, serves an excellent array of oysters, plump and briny and expertly shucked.
But the baked seafood appetizers are problematic. The clams casino is really bacon casino, with a smallish whole topneck playing understudy to the pig. The oysters Rockefeller is topped with a mop of carelessly chopped chewy spinach and an overbroiled crust of chewy cheese. The buttery escargot needs more herbs. The baked Shrimp De Jonghe, tossed in garlic butter with crumbled Ritz crackers, is reminiscent of a country-club banquet. Another company signature, the fish and chips, wastes a nicely fried piece of beer-battered fish by perching it atop a ridiculously huge haystack of prefrozen shoestring fries that has "chain gimmick" written all over it.
Dishes like these are a bit misleading, because Oceanaire's strength is sourcing top-notch ingredients - and generally not messing it up. The concept, with the day's catch checkmarked at the top of the menu, is similar to McCormick & Schmick's, but is usually executed with considerably more skill.
It is also noticeably more expensive, with entrees hovering in the high $20s. But with large, 10-oz. portions and reasonably consistency (save for one major exception), I almost always found the dishes worth it. Bonett's take on Hawaiian butterfish (a.k.a. escolar) was as good as any I've had, the thick steak of juicy white fish seared to a togarashi-spiced crust and paired with a cooling duo of fork-mashed guacamole and mango sauce. A crisped fillet of Australian barramundi played a convincing Pacific Rim theme, laid atop a snappy bundle of Chinese long beans glazed in a sweet and sour chile sauce sparked with pineapples and cashews. A thick slice of Shetland Island salmon was earthy with a "risotto" of Israeli couscous ribboned by wild beech mushrooms.
A number of more familiar dishes were also done well, such as the bacon-infused creamy chowder and the crabcake appetizer filled with sweet lump meat (at lunch, though, the delicate cake was squished by a stiff sandwich roll). The deftly fried calamari streaked with a smoky ancho chile aioli were addictive. A flatiron steak, a friendly nod to carnivores, was perfectly grilled and juicy.
All of the fish can be simply grilled or blackened (a preparation I'd rarely recommend). But the purist approach has risks, as every flaw is exposed. And our greatest disappointment came from a goof on that most elemental of fish-house tasks - the lobster.
The kitchen had only one puny 1.5-pounder left, a shockingly short supply for a restaurant this grand. Even more disappointing was how it was presented: steamed and removed from the shell after we'd specifically requested it broiled in the shell. It was glaringly unsatisfying. And our sheepish waiter, who seemed as professional and outgoing as every other server I'd encountered here, was genuinely concerned with the mistake, which he conceded was his.
But what gesture did he offer for this $43 botch? A complimentary bread pudding that runs $6.95.
It was a de-bell-able offense, the kind of insult that loses customers forever. And it also threatened to dash the many considerable qualities that Oceanaire had already displayed against the rocks of an unexpectedly awkward retro moment: Are we going to relive the demise of yet another classic fish house? Or was the lobster just an unsavory blip on an otherwise promising cruise to the revival of its glory days?
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/craiglaban.