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When Joe's Stone Crab premiered on South Beach in 1913, it was the first classic American seafood house in the Miami area. Ninety-four years later, with the opening of the Oceanaire Seafood Room in Mary Brickell Village, we finally have our second.
You are no doubt thinking that this can't be true. Right now your brain is probably conducting a Google-like search (only much, much slower) for "classic American seafood houses in Miami." Don't bother. All you will find are fish fry joints, crab shacks, and seafood restaurants good, bad, and ugly. The Fish House and the Chart House? Sorry, not classic enough. The closest match would be East Coast Fisheries, which closed years ago, and was in disrepute for some time before that, but at some point in its history might have fit the bill. "Classic American seafood house" is, after all, a very specific genre of eatery defined by two main characteristics:
1. It is just like an expensive steak house, but serves fish instead of meat.
900 S. Miami Ave.
Miami, FL 33130
Region: Central Dade
2. There are small cellophane packets of oyster crackers on the tables.
With its elegantly sweeping curves, polished wood finishes, horseshoe-shape booths, and big band tunes billowing through the air, the warmly illuminated, 290-seat Oceanaire exudes the sophistication and glamour of a Thirties luxury cruise liner. Guests are treated accordingly, meaning first-class service all the way (partner/general manager Kevin Amiott runs a tight ship up front). A bouleof warm, freshly baked sourdough bread, with spreadably soft butter, arrives at the table promptly. So does water, a wine list, and a crisp recital of recommendations. Next comes a complimentary crudité tray with a ramekin of pickled herring, black olives, celery, radish, carrots, peppers, and pickles. How thoughtful! How classic American seafood house!
To the right of the restaurant's entrance is a long, winding counter that seamlessly segues from an oyster bar to a wine and liquor bar. The former flaunts ten daily mollusks divvied into West Coast (Washington State) and East (mostly Prince Edward Islands), each $1.95. A global wine menu is robustly marked up, but there are bottles to be found for under $40, and some 30 available by the glass. The cocktail selection spotlights old-time classics such as Singapore Slings, Harvey Wallbangers, and Side Cars (a signature drink for the Hemingway expat crowd in postwar Paris).
Prior to becoming partner/executive chef here, Sean Bernal helmed the seafood restaurant Pescado in the Village Of Merrick Park. I found his "Latinean" (Caribbean/Latin) fusion fish too fussy at that short-lived spot, and felt likewise about his entrées at Tambo Restaurant in South Beach except his ceviches there were exceptional, and he has brought those recipes on board at Oceanaire. The Peruvian grouper ceviche seduced with luscious bites of firm, fresh fish marinated in just the right amount of lime for just the right amount of time. Lots of choclo (big Peruvian corn kernels), red onions, and cilantro were mixed in, too. Other chilled shellfish selections include lobster, king crab, jumbo shrimp cocktail, tuna tartare, and house-cured salmon. Hot appetizers cover similarly familiar ground fried calamari, steamed mussels, oysters Rockefeller, clams casino, a divinely lumpy crab cake, and fried rock shrimp coated in honey garlic. The last tasted as though it came from P.F. Chang's kitchen across the street, and is the only dish here that I'd recommend tossing overboard.
You could conceivably start with soups or salads, too. As it feels a bit as though you are sitting in the Titanic's dining room, an iceberg lettuce wedge might be fitting, but we shared an order of farm greens splashed with cider vinaigrette and plated with slices of D'anjou pear, Manchego cheese, and crisped Serrano ham an unbeatable matching of flavors. A gorgeously smooth New England clam chowder soothed with plump bivalves and specks of smoky bacon.
Now that we've cleared the decks of peripheral info, let's talk about what really makes Oceanaire sail: the fish. The daily-changing menu offers fifteen to twenty species, most not served anywhere else in Miami. Some, such as cobia, pompano, and swordfish, are hooked in local waters. The rest are flown in from all over the globe. Scottish salmon. Mediterranean daurade. Bahamian snapper. Hawaiian monchong (a pinkish, high-oil fish). All are as fresh as ocean air (get it?), and served either grilled or broiled (with olive oil and sea salt), or done up with preconceived sauces and garnishes.
We sampled them all different ways. Arctic char from Iceland, something of a cross between salmon and trout, was deliciously moist after broiling, thanks in part to its high fat and oil content. George's Bank hake (Spanish restaurants call it merluza), a white-fleshed, low-fat fish, featured meltingly translucent flakes of delicately flavored meat exotically spiked with ginger-togarashi butter. A grilled square of Carolina striped bass was pristine, juicy, and simply transcendental. Costa Rican mahi-mahi, crusted with clumps of crabmeat and pooled in a creamy, bisquelike lobster sauce dreamily delectable (uh-oh, I'm running out of superlatives). Coast Rica likewise contributes "Bigeye number one tuna," which must be pretty darn special at $49.95 it tops the price list by a wide margin. A number of entrées cost between $32 and $35, but most run $24 to $30.