630 Fifth Avenue, 4, San Diego
Oh, woe! Here comes Mardi Gras, and there are no new Cajun-Creole restaurants to review this year. Lots of New Orleans chefs and cooks arrived after Katrina -- welcome, come on in -- but none have opened their own restaurants yet. Still, there is an amiable new seafood joint that does some vaguely Cajun styling on a few dishes and is less pricey than others in its neighborhood. The location will certainly put you into the heart of the local action on Fat Tuesday, Zaftig Friday, or Pleasingly Plump Saturday -- whenever the Gaslamp population swells with Carnival revelers.
"Oysters" was the magic word that brought me to Ocean Room. My friend Sam spotted the sign announcing their presence to the street. Would I like to go gobble some? Oh, boy -- sensual mouth-feel, mineral jolt of brine and oceanic protein, just what my soul's doctor ordered. An oyster a day...Yes! I said, yes!
The restaurant has a long wraparound bar for eating and drinking, the outer corner occupied that evening by a group of attractive young women evidently having a nibble after work. (If it was before work, I don't want to hear about it.) We were seated in a comfortable leather(ette?) booth by the window, our party a multinational concern, with origins in Australia (Sheila, the flying nurse), Austria, Colorado, Chicago (Sam), and New York/Frisco (me) -- we were seafood lovers all.
Three oyster varieties were available on the half-shell -- Fanny Bay (British Columbia), Malpeque (Prince Edward Island), and Blue Point (Long Island). We ordered one of each per person. They come with a twist on the standard cocktail sauce (with tequila and a bit of white wine replacing Worcestershire and Tabasco), plus a vinaigrette with a touch of soy, a variation on ponzu sauce. The big, briny Fanny Bays were so good they didn't need sauce. The other two varieties were smaller, and less exciting. They did need sauce. I kind of wished for a bottle of Tabasco or Louisiana Red on the table to add a little extra spark.
I cleave to the myth that, like celery, oysters have fewer calories than it takes to digest them. At about ten calories apiece, they're almost impossible to fill up on. (One night in New Orleans, I downed two dozen at the bar during an endless wait for a table at Pascal's Manale -- and was still hungry for dinner.) So we ordered appetizers, too.
Under "cocktails" we found Salmon Piña Colada and Ahi Poké. The salmon was less lively than we'd hoped for. Cubes of the fish, cooked by marination in citrus (like ceviche), were soft textured and mild tasting, surrounded by coconut milk, fresh lime juice, and diced mango, with multicolored "root chips" on the side. The mixture was pleasant but not riveting. Even semi-raw, you could taste that this was farm-raised Atlantic salmon rather than the firmer but more costly wild Pacific catch. Ahi Poké on seaweed salad with mango, apple, and (invisible) pine nuts was also vaguely pleasant -- mainly just raw tuna and soy. The best poké has more kick.
After enjoying the Fanny Bays so much, we gambled on Oysters Rockefeller, reputedly invented during the Gilded Age at Antoine's in New Orleans -- baked oysters gratinéed with hollandaise sauce on the half-shells, over a spinach mixture. At Ocean Room, these were probably Malpeques, the chef's favorite. (The Fanny Bays would actually be a little closer in size and flavor to the Gulf Coast's big, juicy Apalachicolas.) The spinach mixture needed more anise-y Herbsaint or Pernod liqueur to flavor it -- at least enough to taste -- and I'm not sure whether the topping included the classic hollandaise along with cream and cheese. But the oysters were still moist, so it was an okay rendition. Mussels marinière, though, were close to wonderful, in a great if salty broth of white wine, herbs, and a touch of cream. Bread comes along for dipping. If the mussels hadn't been a few seconds overcooked, the flavors would have been sublime. With this single exception, the seafood at Ocean Room was consistently tender, cooked precisely to the optimum point.
A couple of New Orleans--style seafood dishes are satisfying, even though the kitchen uniformly tunes the seasoning to far less than typical Louisiana levels. Cajun Pasta offers shrimp, scallops, calamari, clams, mussels, and andouille sausage tossed with fettuccine in a light cream sauce. The advertised "Cajun spices" are barely detectable -- and believe me, if you ate the Cajun-Creole original, you'd detect them. Think of this, instead, as a good creamy Italian pasta pescatore -- no shocks or revelations, just comfort and sensuality. The "traditional New Orleans" combo pan roast isn't exactly traditional. It offers crab, oysters, and shrimp robed in a rich, herbal, tomato-cream sauce with rice mixed in. It bears no resemblance to the dish of that name that Pascal's Manale is famous for -- but may actually be tastier than Manale's, if you want to savor seafood rather than bread crumbs and béchamel sauce.
A pair of "signature dishes" rarely found on the same menu are bouillabaisse and cioppino -- two very different seafood stews from neighboring Mediterranean regions of France and Italy. The bouillabaisse is the more delicate. This kitchen's rendition is not exactly French, because the seafood species are too different, subtly tilting the flavor balance. In Marseilles. the stew consists heavily of "trash catch" (like -- ha ha! -- monkfish, which sells for a princely sum nowadays). Here, the protein content was shellfish, making for a more elegant but less authentic and hearty broth. I imagine that many local diners will prefer this "unfishy" rendition. I missed the rouille (red pepper aioli on baguette croutons), which, although so easy to whirl up in the Cuisi, is a consistent omission locally. Again, every species in the bowl was tender -- not always the case in restaurant bouillabaisses, even those from better-known chefs.
The cioppino was both more robust and more controversial. Sheila and I were astonished to discover that we'd both participated in the "secret ceremony" of the Bay Area's professional crab fishermen -- the annual cioppino feast. She's been to the one in Half Moon Bay, I've gone twice to the one in Pacifica. These feasts are held by and for the crabbers and their kin, with maybe 30 tickets sold to outsiders, all the cheap red wine you can drink included in the price. So both of us could compare Ocean Room's cioppino -- in a heavy, herbal tomato sauce -- with the Sicilian red-sauce version of the Bay Area crabmen.
"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.'"