We began with crab cakes, which proved some of the best ever -- especially if you like your crab unadulterated. The baseball-size orbs are made of pieces of sweet Chesapeake Bay blue crab, with a flour binder that mingles with the crab juices. The flour forms a crisp, brown coating. Alongside sits a steel shot-glass holding mustard-aioli dip. An appetizer consists of one cake, an entrée has two.
El Diablo squid, which the menu labels "Chino Latino," features battered deep-fried calamari, corn tortilla strips, and hot-pepper strips in a sweet-hot sauce resembling Vietnamese nguoc cham table sauce. It's a clever and tasty dish, but Oceanaire's style was becoming apparent: as in the red chili rock shrimp, the Asian flavors are splashed on like cologne, not thoroughly woven into the character of the dish.
Oysters Gatesafellar (you know -- Bill) was okay, but low on cream and a bit dry, with the oysters chopped and mixed with bacon and spinach, then finished with a thin cheese topping that's grilled past melting to the dried-out point. You'd never mistake this for Galatoire's' (in New Orleans) lush original.
About Oceanaire's rendition of Cajun rubbed BBQ prawns: I wonder if they had a Cajun come rub the prawns, or if they rubbed the prawns on a Cajun? The shrimp were dark red from a rub of salt and hot red pepper and then more salt and were served on slabs of red-surfaced salted garlic toast. Cajun is not a red state, but a state of flavor -- more complex than salt and hot.
The best was not yet to come. Instead of ordering safely from the Simply Grilled or Broiled section, we gambled on composed entrées. The fusiony appetizers are fun, and it's easy to forgive a little oil in the bowl, but when you're dealing with expensive entrées, the stakes are higher. This is a huge restaurant, often feeding four or five hundred covers on a weekend evening. The kitchen staff is small for the restaurant size (four hot-line chefs, two pantry, two oyster bar, and three roving sous chefs to monitor execution). No matter how good the recipes taste when the chefs create them, they may turn out less perfect when rushed out by the hot-line.
The table favorite highlighted fire-roasted Mano de León scallops from Baja, sweet and cooked tender. They were served over pearl pasta in a soy sauce gravy with frisée, chives, and some lost little spiny lobster bits. Here, the soy-sauce gravy was an earthy change from the typical cream or butter sauce.
An entrée of local spiny lobster is called "First of the Season... Angry" -- Is it angry at being eaten? Or maddened by the overwhelming sauce of toasted garlic slivers, serrano chilis, fresh basil leaves, and Louie dressing, which came together as a raggedy hot ketchup? "This doneness is perfect, but I can't taste the lobster under the sauce," said Esther, to general agreement.
We were excited to find some rarely offered fish on the menu. Oven-roasted Alaskan halibut cheeks are a good excuse for halibut, and the fish was moist and pleasant. The Provençale-style preparation -- capers, sun-dried tomatoes, and soggy Tuscan black olives (with pits) -- was a decent idea, but the fish swam in the olive oil at the bottom of the plate.
The Oceanaire website stresses freshness, so we put it to the test by ordering Fijian opah (moonfish). The waitress asked how we wanted it cooked, adding, "The chef likes it medium." We went with the chef's choice. It was the wrong choice. I've eaten a memorable Hawaiian opah at a great seafood restaurant in Honolulu; there, the chef preferred it medium rare (i.e., opalescent), sauced with beurre blanc. (Say, why doesn't Oceanaire offer beurre blanc as a side for its grilled fish?) More crucially, opah (and ono) just don't seem able to survive the long trip from fishing boat to processor to airport, etc. By the time they arrive in San Diego, they're mere shadows of themselves. The sauce for the opah was a bright-red parody of a truffled Bordelaise, atop truffled mash, alongside chewy dried wild mushrooms that needed more rehydrating time. Opah can be a delicate fish, but this preparation treats it like salmon, sturgeon, orange roughy -- all species that can take a "red meat" treatment.
Unique, to say the least, is Oceanaire's rendition of bouillabaisse. All it has in common with the Marseilles prototype is a mixture of sea creatures. Bouillabaisse is above all about its broth, and here the scant liquid tasted like thin tomato soup (complete with small, unripe fresh tomatoes afloat). It had no fish-stock flavor, merely a lot of salt exuding from the brine-frozen Alaskan crab legs. There was no rouille (the customary red-pepper aioli) on the bread or for the bread. There were no fish in the bowl, just shellfish. Can't really complain about that, except for the overall effect on the soup. I loved the scallop in the shell. Loved the first mussel. Prawn was a nice prawn. But I didn't like the crab leg, the villain of this creation, making the mixture saltier and saltier, until nothing tasted good.
Our waitress warned us that, like a steakhouse, most entrées come without vegetables, and she pointed us toward the family-size side dishes listed along the right side of the menu. We chose "firecracker" green beans and broccoli with béarnaise sauce. The beans were garnished with macadamia nuts and swathed with what tasted like plain hoisin sauce straight from the bottle. Although tasty, it's another Asian ingredient featured out of context as an easy way to grab a flavor and run with it. (It's rare in authentic Chinese cooking to use hoisin sauce straight-up.) As for the broccoli, it wasn't just al dente, it was wood-hard. At home, a bright kitchen light revealed that the florets were old and yellow -- $9 compost.
One of Oceanaire's best features is its seafood-friendly wine list. It's a white-lover's festival, a deserving winner of a Wine Spectator award. At the Oyster Bar, I was impressed with the uncharacteristic mineral steeliness of the Bonterra Viognier that Sam ordered. (It'd have been a great palate-cleanser for last week's gourmet salt tasting.) Meanwhile, I'd latched onto something special: It's rare to find a list with more than one Sauvignon blanc from the Marlborough region of New Zealand, and here, they have three. I decided to do a horizontal tasting over two nights. Oyster Bay is available by the glass, so of course I chose it to go with the oysters. It proved the slightest of the trio. With the appetizers the next night, we enjoyed a bright, intensely citric Wairau River, which would also be a fabulous "oyster wine." And finally, for entrées, we turned to the Kathy Linskey -- a different flavor given the same grape, area, and year. It was balanced, refined, akin to some French Sauvignons -- a terrific fish wine. The much-acclaimed, pricier Linskey Gewürtztraminer is also available if you're looking for a match for the menu's spicier dishes.