Restaurant Reviews

Big Fish

The numbers are startling, but maybe it's only because of where we live. Judging by our contemporary fetishes of steak palaces, prime beef, Kobe beef burgers (who will be the first restaurateur to introduce a dry-aged prime sloppy joe?), pork chops that could fill a men's club cleavage and rib slabs as long as runways, you'd think that most humans subsist on flame-broiled livestock with a lettuce wedge and a patch of spring greens tossed in here and there to provide the hapless critters with something to graze on in the afterworld. In fact, only 7 percent of the world's food supply is derived from animal products, with the remaining 93 percent coming from land-based plants. Even more astounding, while water covers some 70 percent of the earth's surface, a scant 1 percent of the food supply for the globe's human population comes from oceans and waterways.

The Oceanaire Seafood Room, a Dallas outpost of a small Minneapolis-based upscale seafood chain with units in Minneapolis, Seattle and Washington, D.C., seems bent on changing that, at least judging by its portions. "Think of us as a power steak house with a seafood center," says Oceanaire President Terry Ryan. And power, indeed, is the buzzword. Everything is big--no, huge--from the curvaceous banquettes to the gut-busting side dishes. The only facet of this seafood indulgence that doesn't reflect steak house horsepower is the wine list, which is fittingly heavy on white wine (though it is saddled with too much chardonnay) and fits on the backside of the menu without breaking a sweat. (There also is a "captains list" for guests to peruse.) And the by-the-glass list is a little dinky (16 entrants, including a Guigal Tavel rose. Gutsy!), even when you consider that seafood usually doesn't require the alcohol wash a porterhouse demands.

Everything else is gargantuan, so wear a leather power-lifting belt under your chemise to forestall unsightly hernias (try lifting the hush puppies without a winch). Portable ice mountains in two sizes ($35 and $65) known as chilled shellfish platters are embedded with all manner of spindle-legged water creatures including lobster, crab and shrimp, as well as critters that do nothing but suck and make expensive jewelry, such as clams and oysters. Hash browns à la Oceanaire, a thick dense pie of moist crisp potato shreds fashioned into the shape of a holeless Bundt cake, could satiate a whole highway work crew afflicted with pot munchies. Seasoned with salt, pepper, bacon, onion and Tabasco sauce, this flywheel of an entrée sidecar was rich and piquant. Also plowing through the dining experience with heft are those aforementioned poblano chile hush puppies: six puffy and dense finger food pods with a crispy exterior, but so dry they parched the mouth with every chew.

Nothing is petite here, except the cups of soup. Still, they embrace a heft all their own. Crab, corn and poblano pepper soup was thick and gleefully packed with blue crab chunks, firm chewy corn kernels, broad well-balanced flavors and firm textures that sparked compulsive spooning.

Pick any seafood restaurant cliché and The Oceanaire will have abducted it and put it on steroids. The monikers carry the tune in case the serving sizes don't whack a hole into the side of your consciousness and embed themselves. Jumbo lumpmeat crab cakes are ugly barnacle-like nodes of sweet brackish crabmeat chunks laced with just a powder puff of breadcrumbs, which makes you wonder how the craggy composites are held together. Actually, they're glued in place with a mayonnaise dressing and packed into balls before they're baked with a little bay butter. This allows the delicious crab flavor to easily pierce the thin starch draperies--a welcome maneuver in a town where chefs seem determined to choke off authentic crab sensuality in a blizzard of sticky breadcrumb mizzle--a seeming attempt to cloak the scarcity of crabmeat or the presence of garish substitutes stained in shades of clown lipstick.

The tuna in the Niçoise salad was delivered in dark, ruby hues. Rectangles of delicate and silky tuna muscle mingled with crisp green beans, delicate hard-boiled egg wedges, tomato and kalamata olives. The greens were exquisitely dressed, and the whole ensemble was a pleasure to leer at, too.

While the food is plus size, the service is big on detail-attentiveness, almost to the point of being clinical. Servers wear white coats with roach clip-like pincers attached to their collars--devices used to secure lobster bibs to patrons, or maybe to help build appetites for the hash browns. And service can be slow, dragging lunch through a whole afternoon midsection even when there is little dining room commerce to justify delays. The focus on detail can get mind-numbing, with servers seeming to crave a barometer reading on every bite. "I'll give you a chance to taste, and I'll be back," said a server a few minutes after delivering a salad. That's just way too much Arnold before lunch.

Décor is a handsome temperature yin yang, a mesh of the chilly and the warm. Stark metal trim and blue neon light splashes play off hardwood floors, dark wood trim and red leather banquettes. Sharp edges duel with globe light fixtures and a curvaceous bar that serves classic jet fuel (James Bond martini, bloody Caesar, Harvey Wallbanger) and well-chilled oysters, which come with Sponge Bob cast-like names such as Skookum Inlet, Hama Hama, Pemiquid and Hog Island. Snow creek and malpaque versions were cool, with clean briny flavors and a delicious herb and shallot vinegar puddle for plunging.

But the really big stuff comes on like a snowplow even as it dances with deft flavors. The brutish crispy fried whole arctic char is nearly as ugly as the horse-faced crab cakes. And the flesh is peculiar, assuming salmon-like pink and flakiness while discarding a bit of the richness. This is more subtle meat, harboring just a wisp of buttery flavor under a fiercely brittle and thick fry coat that barks with a conspicuous crackle with every fork twist and bite. The coating, well-seasoned and void of grease, comes with a citrus-soy glaze rich in ginger flavor if the simple fry treatment isn't enough to tantalize.

Even more tantalizing than this polar fish is the Chilean sea bass resting on a mattress of bacon-studded wilted spinach that basks in a beet puree and puddle of red wine vinegar. This brilliantly buttery fish with a barely perceptible crust is topped with a whisper of crisp delicate fried beet strings--a flawless twist on a fish that has become a cod-like staple for high-end fishmongers.

Heft hurls at lunch, too, with compelling twists on classic midday forage. There's a pastrami Reuben with house-cured salmon pastrami on rye, and a Highland Park-wallet-thick yellowfin tuna burger slathered in pickled ginger and wasabi mayo. The beauty of this patty is that it's thick and massive without the leaden gullet punch of ground beef; you don't feel like you need to be forklifted to your car.

But you will after the Key lime pie, if you can finish it without the assistance of power tools. This huge wedge buttressed by a thick, crispy and well-salted crust has a smooth custard escarpment sown with brisk citrus. It's topped with lime slices and a smear of whipped cream--easily the best Key lime pie we've tried in Dallas.

And that's no fish tale.

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz

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