It's the new year, and my resolution includes trying -- once again -- to pare a few millimeters off my pot (make that cauldron) belly. So here comes restaurant week to derail my good intentions. We had already made arrangements to join friends this Friday at 910 in La Jolla, and a few days later, Diana announced that she had secured an early reservation for Sunday (yesterday) at Oceanaire. Did I approve?
Of course (sigh), I gave her the okay, but I have to confess I wasn't crazy about the idea. We'd never been to Oceanaire, but most of the credible reviews I'd read about the place said it was good but that the prices were normally sky high. I suspected that if we went for the restaurant week menu ($30 each), which wasn't listed in advance, we'd get a marginal meal and probably second-tier service. You might say I went into the place with the "open-minded" attitude of a supreme court nominee, but Oceanaire made that attitude melt away like a wicked witch in a monsoon.
As you come in through the door, you're in an art-deco entryway, and you can ascend to the mezzanine-level restaurant either via an elevator or a curving staircase. In the background, 1920s style "hot jazz" is playing, and it actually seems to go perfectly with the surroundings. The main room has a few nautical touches, but the overall feeling (to me, at least) was of a very snazzy, prohibition-era supper club. Our reservation was for 5:30, but the place was already a third full; still we were seated in a prime booth.
We were presented with the over-sized menu (printed daily), and the first thing I saw was a 26-ounce Australian lobster tail for $115. I think the three digits were what made it jump out at me. The Restaurant Week selections were at the lower right-hand corner: three starters, three entrees, and three desserts. Before we could order, though, a tray of crudités appeared, which included some marinated fish spiced with ginger and (I think) a barely detectable tinge of Dijon mustard. A big wedge of fresh sourdough and butter hit the table at about the same time.
For our starters, Di ordered the crab cake, and I the Caesar salad with white anchovy. The salad was huge, and consisted of hearts of romaine -- as Julia Child used to prescribe -- in bite-size pieces, a sprinkling of croutons and the promised anchovy. The dressing was just right, and the anchovy was what made it extra special by adding a delicious kick of umami. But as good as it was, Di's crab "cake" put my salad in the shade. It was a very generous mold of lump crab -- no breading on this baby -- perfectly cooked and with some mysterious and very mild additional flavor (a marinade?). It came with a side of aioli (also mildly flavored), but while the sauce was very good, we mostly ignored it as we didn't want to corrupt or cover up the fantastic taste of the crab. It was nothing like a "normal" crab cake, but it was simply the best I'd ever eaten. The third starter, which we didn't try, was lobster bisque.
For her main course, Di chose the "Black and Blue Shark," which was a huge filet of mako shark, seasoned on the outside with Cajun spices and lightly blackened. A hefty dollop of creamy bleu cheese -- not identified, but an excellent quality -- was laid on top of the fish, and the whole thing was then covered with deep-fried shredded onions. The combination of bleu cheese, peppery spices, and fish was tasty and interesting, but it struck both of us as something we wouldn't want to eat every day. The cheese didn't *quite* overwhelm the fish, but it *almost* did. Still, we both liked it very much.
I had a lightly grilled mahi-mahi that was overlaid with a thin veneer of blue crab, and I think three different sauces drizzled on the plate. It was spectacularly good. I was the winner in the entree round, for sure. The third choice, which we didn't try, was a broiled red snapper.
For dessert, the choices were "deconstructed apple pie," crème brulee, or a root beer float. I ordered the apple pie, and it was indeed deconstructed. Arranged on a platter were pieces of crispy pie crust, warm spiced apples, raisins in a syrupy sauce, a little scoop of vanilla ice cream, some crunchy crumbs, and a dollop of whipped cream. It was not only very tasty, but it was a fun idea that made both of us smile. Di's crème brulee was velvety and rich, and was topped by a very rich (house made?) chocolate truffle. Yummy. We didn't have the root beer float, but saw it being served at a neighboring table. It came in a tall glass containing several scoops of ice cream and a frosty brown bottle of the root beer. It, too, looked like one of the main ingredients was "fun."
With our meal, we had a nice New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc ("Lake Chalice" $30). By the way, even though Oceanaire is pretty pricey, they had a very interesting selection of wines at affordable prices -- as well as a few stratospherically priced for the expense-account crowd.
I don't know if he was typical of the staff, but our waiter hit the perfect balance of a welcoming, congenial demeanor, but without insinuating he was a long-lost nephew. Not once did we feel rushed or other than well treated. In fact, Chef Brian Malarkey stopped by our table to get our feedback. Nice. Very nice.
I don't mind saying that Oceanaire changed my mind. Our restaurant week dinner was a fantastic value, and even if we can't afford to become "regulars," I'm sure we'll be back occasionally. By the time we left at 7:15, the place was packed -- and I'm not surprised.
jim strain in san diego.