400 J Street, Downtown San Diego
I read the news today, oh boy. Seafood is back in the headlines. A few months ago it was bad news about mercury. Now it's good news: eating fish seems to stave off heart disease, tennis elbow, and the blue meanies. A quick summing-up: big, predator fish (like bluefin and albacore, swordfish and king mackerel) are chancy, especially if you're pregnant or a kid. Most other species are A-OK unless they're endangered by poachers (like Chilean sea bass, orange roughy, and Beluga caviar) or are badly farm-raised like so many aquatic factory chickens (which means most Atlantic salmon). Oysters: lotsa cholesterol, but mainly good cholesterol. Confusion, total.
Suddenly I found myself hungry for fish and ravenous for oysters. Over the last couple of years, several friends have reported pleasant experiences snacking at the Oceanaire's Oyster Bar or enjoying seasonal special dinners there, so that's where I headed.
My partner was out of town, so I called on my friend Sam to help scout out Oceanaire's Oyster Bar. As you cozy up to the valet parking stop on Fourth Avenue, you can see the ground-floor kitchen through the window. It's huge, clean, modern, populated with well-spaced line chefs rapidly cooking, heating, flipping, and turning out plates.
The Oyster Bar and dining rooms are up a grand staircase, but ever-dedicated to checking for handicap access, I took the elevator that's to the left of the front door. At the top, on the left, is the moderately crowded Oyster Bar, and next to that, an overpopulated liquor bar, bodies four deep. To the right and ahead, beyond the hostess station, are several oversized dining rooms, decorated to evoke a luxury liner of old, with semi-carpeted hardwood flooring, fish sculptures on the walls, booths of rich brown leather and polished red-brown wood, and tables with white napery and leather-cushioned chairs. Thirties and Forties jazz plays assertively on the sound system.
The Oyster Bar crowd runs to younger couples, eating casually before heading for the club scene. On a Monday night, the adjoining liquor bar was thronged by single guys in jeans and tees; next night, it was all gray hair and suits. The Oyster Bar stools are so high, I wished I had a saddle-horn to grab hold of. I'd forgotten -- always mount a horse from the left; I was struggling to do it from the right.
The menu is printed daily on a 19- x 11-inch sheet of heavy paper. Listed near the top are all the species carried regularly by the restaurant, with checkmarks next to those available that evening. The oysters and clams du jour are noted under a "fresh today" heading. You can get your fish "Simply Grilled or Broiled," or go to a list of specialties for more complex preparations. In any week, specialties are largely the same every day, but made with different fish, according to availability. From time to time, there is a major change with five or six replacements. At West Coast outposts (Oceanaire has locations in nine cities nationwide), most fin fishes are Pacific species. The thrilling wine list is printed on the reverse side of the menu.
Whether you're in the Oyster Bar or the dining room, you begin with house-baked sourdough bread and a ramekin of butter with an image of a fish stamped into it, plus a relish tray with pickled cucumbers and peppers, radishes, black olives, carrot and celery strips, and a small box of wine-marinated herring (which tastes just like Lascco brand).
The bar has live shuckers, but you order from a waiter. Our server was expert or bossy or both. We wanted to try two each of all eight oyster variations available that night (after all, oysters have almost no calories), plus an extra pair of the tiny, sweet Kumamotos from Eureka. The waiter didn't like the New Zealand Coromandels or the Canadian Fanny Bays, so he made us up a platter of an even dozen, bringing Quonset (Rhode Island), Gorge Inlet (British Columbia), Tatamagouche (Nova Scotia), and Cohansy. (Noo Joisey has ersters?) We started with the first pair of creamy Kumamotos. They were exceptional -- as they often are. The rest were disappointing in comparison, less vibrant than oysters I've eaten at Blue Waters, Lou and Mickey's, and King's Fish House. The "fixin's" were okay -- a middle-of-the-road mignonette and a cocktail sauce that welcomed a squeeze of lemon juice.
Second round, we went clam-diving, starting with a pair of raw New York littlenecks (interesting, but not the sweetest) followed by the same bivalves baked as clams casino, one of a dozen-odd corporate dishes you'll find at any of the restaurant's locations. This version has whole clams heated on the half-shell, with a topping of bacon slices and parsley. The shells were awash in a seepage of oil (bacon fat? butter?). It seemed like something a suburban hostess might have served to the bridge club in 1964.
One minute later, we were hungry again. (Remember, oysters have no calories -- and no MSG.) We enjoyed a well-balanced salad of shrimp and moist crab with oranges, arugula, and avocado in a citrus dressing. A generously sized appetizer of red chili rock shrimp featured popcorn shrimp in a crisp cornstarch batter, surrounded by a slaw of shredded red-and-white cabbage, carrots, red bell pepper, and toasted garlic slices. The dressing was spicy and tangy, heavy on Asian red chili oil, the excess of which settled into a sump at the bottom of the bowl -- but the flavors and textures worked together deliciously.
I returned next night with high hopes, and with reinforcements to tackle the long menu, which runs to some 30 entrées. Dave and Marty had reported that they'd enjoyed a simply grilled fish at the restaurant on New Year's Eve, and they joined me, along with Alan and Esther, who'd just returned from a Central California wine-tasting vacation.
We discovered that, like the Oyster Bar, each table has a full line of condiments -- a small bottle of ketchup, a large bottle of Tabasco sauce, a shaker of ground black pepper, a whole yellow box of Old Bay seasoning, and a 26-ounce canister of La Baleine French sea salt. Looking over the menu, Marty pointed out, amused, that the first appetizer listed is a "tomato juice cocktail" for 95 cents. (After that, prices shoot up tenfold.)