Last week I ventured into that tourist wasteland known as the Gaslamp District. Unlike many in San Diego, I have no qualms about visiting or dining in the Gaslamp, I've even had some very good meals there. I also remember when it was a pretty seedy part of town inhabited mainly by drunks, druggies and other marginalized poor souls. The clean-up job and transformation in downtown San Diego has been stunning and produced desirable results, and Horton Plaza and the Gaslamp District led the way. Now, if they could only do something about making parking a little easier........
Anyway, back to the Gaslamp. The purpose of this trip was a birthday dinner, mine to be precise. I'd heard a lot about The Oceanaire Seafood Room at 4th & J; I'd even sampled a delicious smoked marlin appetizer done by Oceanaire for a reception a couple of years ago. So with the ever intrepid Chilepm in tow, we arrived for dinner. The first clue that you're entering a different world miles away from the crush of tourists happens the minute you walk through the front doors and into the vestibule attractively paneled in dark woods and subtle tones. There is an elevator to the dining room for those needing assistance, the rest of us ascend the sweep of stairs perfect for making an entrance. Not as perfect as the staircase at Laurel, but good.
The dining room is dominated a fresh seafood bar on one end, yet more of that rich wood and a large expanse of tables and banquets, creating the distinct impression of being in the first class dining room of an elegant ocean liner during the glory days of transatlantic crossings. The deep marine blue back-lighting around the room at ceiling level only added to that sense of being at sea. And thankfully, the staff and kitchen are not at sea, or perhaps more appropriately, they've found their sea legs. Menus in hand, a relish tray of nibbles composed of carrot and celery sticks, olives, a few assorted pickled peppers and a stainless steel souffle cup of pickled herring arrived almost as soon as we were seated.
I'm not big on oysters, but Chilepm is and ordered 6 on the half-shell to start, which she assured me were briny and fresh.
I decided to start with a chile, garlic and ginger dish of shrimp, and got a little - well actually a lot more than I had bargained for.
Underneath all that shrimp was a wonderfully crunchy Asian style slaw that was raw when delivered but gradually cooked through from the heat of the shrimp and sauce as I ate.
The breading on the shrimp was crispy enough to shatter when bitten into and the shrimp tender and sweet. Our waitress warned us that most appetizers and all the side dishes were large enough to share, a warning I should have heeded. the portion was, indeed, sufficient to feed at least 2 if not 3. And, no, I didn't eat it all, mostly because the more I ate the sweeter it became and sweet is not my favorite taste sensation. I do firmly believe, however, that as a shared appetizer the sweetness would not be overpowering.
Fish is the claim to fame at Oceanaire. The menu is marked with what's fresh that day and the servers make it a point to make sure you know what's fresh and on hand as well. There are essentially two parts to the entree side of the menu, the straightforward preparations and the more complicated specials. For the straightforward this means grilling or sauteing and then service with a choice of a couple of different sauces, or totally bare. The more complicated entrees generally include multiple fish and seafood components such as Stuffed Sole, Fisherman's Stew (a Cioppino variation) along with things like a wine reduction with exotic mushrooms or a confit made of sweet onions. The fresh fish and the specialties change given daily and seasonal availability.
Chilepm decided to have the fresh sturgeon grill
And I the swordfish with a white wine buerre blanc sauce
I think I can unequivocally say this is the best piece of swordfish, and possibly the best piece of fish I have ever eaten. The flesh was firm and just barely cooked through creating a meaty flavor and mouth-feel. The sturgeon was equally as successful. Sometime the best things are those that haven't been fooled around with much. Truly fresh fish doesn't really need much in the way of adornment. If it's fresh and prepared with a light touch and some respect it almost always turns out perfectly. We had not, however, learned our lesson on Oceanaire portion sizes quite yet. The entire menu is a la carte, so we ordered a couple of side dishes to go along with the fish.
Dijon Au gratin Potaotes - and -
Green Beans Almondine
The potatoes were good, the green beans were great. Like the swordfish the green beans are some of the best I've ever eaten. Once again, it's also a function of freshness and careful cooking. Overcooked they're too mushy, undercooked too crunchy and grassy tasting. These were cooked just to the point of loosing the snap and crunch but still retaining some bite. And the almond topping couldn't have been better. I'd swear there were a few smokehouse flavor almonds mingled with the regular almonds because there was a haunting bit of hickory lilting through dish. Both of took home fish, potatoes and green beans. I ended up getting 3 more meals out of it!
We made a pact to look at the dessert menu but to skip it since both of us were feeling rather full by this point. Unfortunately, since it was my birthday Oceanaire would have none of that. To our table came a flaming Baked Alaska
Cookies & cream ice cream was encased in a soft and airy meringue and set upon a square of chocolate genoise. 151 Rum and Creme de Cacao were poured over and the whole thing ignited. Needless to say, we finished every last bite of it right down to the plate. No to-go boxes for this one.
Oceanaire may be part of a small chain, but it's a keeper. The setting, the food and the service are top notch and worth every penny. I'm already plotting my return..........