"This seems awfully coarse," said Sheila, in her crisp accent. "I actually find it more delicate than the Pacifica rendition," I argued. "In Pacifica, it tasted like they poured a gallon of Gallo Hearty Burgundy into ten gallons of canned tomatoes and cooked it all down." "But there's quite a lot of dried basil in here," she said. "There, it was a huge amount of garlic," I recalled. All in all, I liked this version, as much for the festive memories it evoked as for itself. I suspect that Ocean Room's cioppino may be tastier than Pacifica's -- it's rustic, all right, but a bit more refined. All it's missing are the great shoals of fresh Dungeness crab, which I did miss. (At Ocean Room, mixed shellfish substitute, as they typically do in Italy's original versions of the dish.)
Finfish are scantily present on the menu. There's seared ahi, blackened snapper, mahi mahi in caper cream sauce, and our choice, an ambitious specialty of steamed salmon wrapped in banana leaves, marinated with achiote-honey paste, served with jasmine rice and asparagus spears. This was cooked to just the tender point, but the farmed fish was mushy and mild in flavor. We all picked at it but soon lost interest. The recipe is good, but this quality of "catch" hardly deserves the effort. The restaurant obtains its seafood from a large wholesaler in Los Angeles. Even though it's delivered daily, it isn't the sparkling fresh-off-the-boat local catch that some high-end restaurants serve. (But it won't cost you as much either.)
Despite my reservations about Ocean Room, I certainly enjoyed my dinner there. No, it's not foodie heaven, but it's a good spot to relax over a bite or a meal with companions. We could hear each other talk, and we didn't have to stop the conversation while a waiter pontificated about the wonders emerging from the kitchen. Sometimes you don't want a temple of haute cuisine, merely an easygoing "place for folks to meet" -- especially if there are oysters involved and Mardi Gras coming up. Next thing you know, you may be dancing in the street.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Ocean Room has been in business for about five months. It's part of a Gaslamp restaurant group that includes Asti, Max's New York (a steakhouse), Chianti (formerly Mar e Monte), and La Fiesta. Chef Felix Frias comes from Vera Cruz, a port town famed for its exquisite seafood cookery, including the classic local dish Huachinango Veracruzana. He moved with his family to San Diego when he was about 9 years old. As soon as he was old enough, he began to work in restaurants, learning to cook on the job. "I've been in the business for almost 15 years. I've been working in Asti Restaurant, Max's, in all the restaurants of this group. My main thing was Italian. In the last 10 years I've been working for this company -- George Herman is the owner -- and I've been working with good chefs. My teachers were Jeff Barr and Raul de Castillo, who's still with the company. They saw my skills, and they gave me the opportunity. I've been reading and traveling around the country, learning all the time.
"A lot of the dishes we serve are classic recipes that have been around for many years, like the bouillabaisse and cioppino, and the New Orleans dishes. We travel around, taste other people's. All you can do is put your own little special flavors to make them your own style. But you've got to have respect for the people who made those dishes [first].
"I'm very passionate about the food. I love to cook, to make people happy. I tell all my crew, including the waiters, 'Make everybody feel like they're at Disneyland -- happy to be here.'"