By David Rottenberg
There are two new stars rising in San Diego’s culinary galaxy, brightly shining in local foodies’ firmament. They are both at The Oceanaire Seafood Room, a national chain of seafood restaurants whose previous local executive chef, Brian Malarkey, was featured prominently on Food Network and other television shows. Malarkey gained a strong local following. But, Malarkey left recently to pursue other interests.
Not to worry.
His chef’s toque is now being worn successfully by the first rising star, Sean Langlois. He was Malarkey’s sous chef for four years. That means that many of Malarkey’s signature dishes are being “tastefully” prepared now just as they were in the past.
Given Langlois’ experience with sushi and other oriental cuisine, new signature dishes appear on the menu to please local diners. This rising star blends the old with the new to move The Oceanaire towards new culinary dimensions.
The second rising star is in The Oceanaire’s management. The chain emphasizes excellent service with excellent cuisine. They could not have selected a better new general manager. Philip Shayne, who is also an Operating Partner, left a successful career as an attorney in order to follow his personal passion – fine food. He studied at California Culinary Academy and even cooked as a chef after graduating. But he realized that his greater passion lay in combining his people skills and legal training so he migrated from the “back of the house” (the kitchen) to the “front of the house” (management).
The affable, friendly Shayne really knows how to work a room — literally. He not only stops at tables to greet frequent diners. He prowls the tables to make sure that service and food meet his high standards. He is always in the background, checking.
The Oceanaire is located in the heart of the Gaslamp, close to the Convention Center. On the evening I visited, the room was packed with attendees to the National Association of Realtors, a group of 20,000 visitors to help our local economy. Numerous tables were put together to accommodate small groups of 12 to 20 diners. As quickly as one group left, tables were cleared to bring in the next group.
The restaurant is on the second story, on the top of a grand, sweeping staircase that could be a perfect setting for a wedding photo. An elevator near the entrance is available for guests who find it difficult to climb stairs.
Menus are printed daily, reflecting what’s fresh. These are listed at the top, with check marks showing what’s in house. With twelve restaurants nationwide, located in other major metropolitan areas such as Washington DC, Altanta and Denver, The Oceanaire’s huge buying power ensures that it receives the “best of the best” when it comes to seafood.
To illustrate, Chef Langlois offered that evening an opportunity to sample louvar, a fish that is rarely available because it is so difficult to catch. When caught, it is swept up by chance with another species. It is not fished on its own.
The chef was offered 60 pounds, which he grabbed, to dole out to knowing customers. It is a wonderful fish, with flaky white flesh and a halfway solid swordfish-like consistency and buttery taste. By the time this is printed, the fish will be gone. But, when dining at The Oceanaire, ask for louvar on the slim chance it is available. If you’re like me, you’ll love it.
The Grand Shellfish Platter is an impressive way to begin. It is a towering sampler of shrimp, crab, scallops, mussels and oyster encased in a block of ice. It can serve as a meal all on its own. The seafood tastes amazingly fresh. A pair of “pliers” is supplied with which to pry out the succulent crab flesh from its casing. The effort is well worth it. Need a bib? No problem.
Chesapeake Bay Style Crab Cakes is another great way to begin. The cake is all-crab, encased in a light batter to hold it together. The large cake was so good it disappeared in what seemed like only seconds. Other appetizers include Blue Crab Cocktail, New England Clam Chowder and The Titanic Iceberg Wedge. The Oyster Bar lists an impressive range of oysters, from near and far away. Fish is flown in daily.
Specialties include many seafood items, including Pan Seared Boston Diver Scallops in a white miso broth and soy reduction. Red Snapper, Scottish Loch Duart Salmon, Hawaiian Ahi Tuna and Macadamia Encrusted Alaskan Halibut are served in a variety of ways that are bound to please. Drunken Mexican Swordfish took on a subtle flavor from the port braised cherries and smokey almonds that added to its dense, steak-like consistency.
The young at heart could love the traditional “fish & chips.” The fish that evening was a combination of halibut and mahi mahi encased in a Karl Strauss beer batter, together with hot shoestring potato. It reminded me of my time in Vancouver, when I owned three fish and chip restaurants. I know good product when I eat it. This was superb.
Diners who like their seafood “from the tank” could choose Nova Scotia Whole Lobster or Australian Lobster Tail. Diners who need meat rather than seafood have choices of several steaks and even a whole roasted chicken. Everything is a la carte. Sides include an excellent creamed corn, horseradish mashers and asparagus with hollandaise.
Prices at The Oceanaire are moderate to expensive but well worth the cost, given the quality of cuisine and service. Wine selections are reasonably priced and are almost entirely California vintages.
Here’s a deal…The Oceanaire offers a three course meal for early birds (5-7 p.m., Sunday through Thursday) for only $29.95. It includes even a delightful Vanilla Bean Crème Brulee. That’s a bargain.
The Oceanaire is at 400 J St. Valet parking is available. Call (619) 858-2277 for reservations and information.
David Rottenberg is editor of Dining San Diego Magazine, a guide to many of the city’s favorite restaurants. He is a member of the Southern California Restaurant Writers Association, a member of ASJA and vice president of the North American Travel Journalists Association.