Catch of the Year
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.
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 boule of 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.
These are a la carte prices, so steak house-style side dishes are in order. Cole slaw, steamed broccoli, stir-fried baby bok choy, creamed corn, and hash brown potatoes boosted with bacon and onions are all portioned for at least four people to share, and each proved an unqualified success. That wasn't the case with a massive mound of dense mofongo laced with chicharrones which seems out of place here until you consider that the chef is a native of Santurce, Puerto Rico. My wife, who shares the same heritage, would only say that Mr. Bernal's mother most assuredly makes a better mofongo than this.
A Puerto Rican mother will never, ever tell you that you are asking for too much food, but I overheard a waiter warn a gentleman dining alone at the next table just that, and suggest that he consider skipping either the salad or appetizer. This is bad for the restaurant's immediate bottom line, and bad for the waiter's own tip, but a wonderful, caring gesture toward the customer the return business of whom will ultimately more than pay for the skipped course.
Big, fat, American desserts are tinged with nostalgia. Banana split. Root beer float. Warm cookies and milk. We tried those chocolate chip cookies in a "chipwich" guise, meaning vanilla ice cream sandwiched between them. The cookies were too hard, though, causing the ice cream to gush out upon cutting or biting. Canned whipped cream was piled on as well, which created one big, underwhelming mess. Baked Alaska was much easier to handle, and surprised with a cool core of tropical mango sorbet. If you're too full for dessert, which is likely, but want to end things on a sweet note just the same, chocolate or vanilla dixie cups of ice cream are available for ninety-five cents.
More than one talented pair of kitchen hands are needed to steer this ship, so a tip of the captain's cap not just to Bernal (third time's a charm), but also to sous chefs Anthony Hoff and Kareem Anquin all three graduates of Johnson & Wales University. As a matter of fact, a crisp salute to the entire kitchen crew, as every fish was impeccably cooked, every fried food golden brown, every vegetable bright green, every salad plate chilled, every entrée plate heated, every detail attended to.
Mary Brickell Village, five years behind schedule, is still pretty much a ghost town and things are looking gloomy for the mall now that Publix has pulled out. Currently Starbucks and the aforementioned Chang's are Oceanaire's only neighbors; Grimpa Steakhouse, Blue Martini, and Rosa Mexicano are expected soon. All are chains, including Oceanaire this is the twelfth branch, and the first in Florida (the second will be in Orlando). The original Oceanaire is considered to be among Minneapolis's finest dining establishments, and the one here jumps to the top of Miami's class as well. Be certain to make reservations, as every chair and stool gets occupied by 7:30 p.m., and earlier on weekends. That's another thing about classic American seafood houses. Everybody loves them.
900 S Miami Ave, Miami; 305-372-8862. Open for lunch Monday through Friday 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., dinner Monday through Thursday 5:00 to 10:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:00 to 11:00 p.m., Sunday 5:00 to 9:00 p.m.
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