Oceanaire Seafood Room
It was Anthony Bourdain who first warned diners against eating fish on Mondays.
He issued the warning in a New Yorker article, "Don't Eat Before Reading This," and then again in the book Kitchen Confidential, which sprang from that magazine piece. And he's been issuing it ever since, because the poor bastard can't do a reading, sit for an interview or host a panel without someone (usually several someones) asking about the whole fish-on-Monday thing.
True, he had good reasons for saying what he did — laying out for people the then-only dimly understood world of the professional chef, explaining how even the best restaurants don't get fish deliveries on Sunday because all the markets are closed, and how a cost-cutting chef will use Monday's slow service to run out the last of the leftover fish from Saturday night (turning it into lunch frittata specials or nightmare "fisherman's stews") and then maybe, maybe, he'll start putting the fresh stuff back in rotation on Tuesday for the locals who patronize his dining room on school nights. Recently, Bourdain has taken to saying that "No Fish on Mondays" is what's going to be carved on his tombstone — that this overly generalized and cautionary one-liner, zipped off in frustration almost fifteen years ago, is all that he'll be remembered for.
But I think he's wrong. Maybe not about the tombstone (that probably will be his epitaph), but definitely about Mondays and fish. Things have changed, at least a little, since Bourdain made himself famous talking about the culinary underbelly. And if you're careful — if you order well at the right place and trust in the essential decency of good people not to poison you just to save a couple of points on their P&Ls — eating a nice piece of Florida pompano or delicate Dover sole on Monday should be the least of your concerns.
Really, it's bacon steaks you should be afraid of. Or chicken-fried oysters smothered in sausage gravy. And it's not the food that should scare you, because the food is...well, the food is beyond delicious. What you should fear is the addiction, the sudden and overwhelming need, after your first taste, to every day eat a steak of bacon, or a plate of fried Washington State oysters dressed in a sausage gravy so homemade that the chef — a complete, left-field, OCD genius out of Seattle with small, fidgety hands and a fanatic's eyes gleaming behind his glasses — not only brings the gravy up from scratch but hand-makes the sausage for it as well. Fear the need, and then the heart attack with your name on it. Fear your own entirely human helplessness in the face of food that's made to happy you to death.
Or don't. Like me, you could just say fuck it and eat the pound of bacon guilt-free, figuring there's also a chance you'll get hit by a bus out in front of the new Oceanaire Seafood Room, and, if you do, you'll at least die with a sated smile on your face and a belly full of bacon steak. Cholesterol and high blood pressure are killers, no doubt. But so is a tour bus shipping in a bunch of blue-hairs to see Spamalot! and jumping a stale yellow at forty miles an hour. Pick your poison. Make your choice. And eat the fish, too, on any day you have a taste for it. Because someday that bus is going to come — and life is too short to subsist on salads.
But life is long enough that you must experience some of it at Oceanaire. I love this restaurant because even though it's part of a chain, it's a small and weirdly independent chain made up of about a dozen fiercely sovereign and chef-driven locations. I love it because Terry Ryan, the president, takes his vacations in places like the Honolulu fish market so that he can eat a little poke and lay eyes on one of the network of fish brokers who supply his restaurants, and because even though there's money behind Oceanaire, chef Matt Mine (he of the fidgety hands and glasses) works as it suits him and his food. So when he smokes trout, he does it with an old coffee can filled with wood chips set in the bottom of a low-heat oven with the door cracked. If he wanted, he could probably have a state-of-the-art, digitally controlled smoker in the kitchen — some space-age monstrosity made of gleaming stainless and blinking lights. If he wanted, he could order smoked trout from someone else.
But he doesn't want that. What he wants is a coffee can and some wood chips, because he knows that, for some reason, fish smoked this way just tastes better. It gets stiff and solid, takes on a sheen of smoke that turns the fillets gray and ugly but flavors them smoothly and with a softness that you cannot achieve with the airflow and temperature controls of some ultra-modern SmokeMaster 9000. The scratch pesto on top helps. So do the homemade potato chips. But really, it's just the smoked trout that testifies to the rightness of absent economics. If trout tasted better done on the moon, I have no doubt that Mine would've already built a rocket out by the loading dock (probably out of old coffee cans and spare oven doors). If it tasted better charred over a kerosene fire on the end of a stick, he'd do that, too. But it doesn't. He does it the best way there is, and it is delicious.
I also love this restaurant because the space seems made for classic martinis and adultery. The bar that divides the left-side dining room from the somewhat more quiet and elegant right is long and sleek and staffed by a couple of the best bartenders in the city. The style is art deco luxe — lots of blacks and silvers, blue neon, natural wood, starched white tablecloths and unassuming flatware. All of the plates are white. All of the napkins are black. The entire vibe is one of obvious but restrained class, like the private dining room of the coolest ocean liner ever.
The top of every menu (different week to week, day to day) is a list of tasty fishies, with checkmarks beside them meaning yeah, we have them, and yeah, they're fresh. Even on Mondays. For years, Ryan and his chefs, his cooks, his fish butchers (which is how Mine started with Oceanaire, in the prep kitchen as a piscine deconstructionist in Seattle five years ago), have worked to build up a supply line that, while not unparalleled, is certainly rare. They buy directly from the fish brokers, have fish caught (or at least processed) just for them, and since they buy a lot of fish every day and pay top dollar on the spot, they get the best fish.
I spoke with Ryan back in July, shortly after Oceanaire opened in Denver, and he said something that's stuck with me. I'd asked whether he ordered centrally – whether he and a bunch of heavies at Oceanaire HQ called in the massive orders to their fish network and then doled out the product to the chefs at the various outlets. And he laughed at me. "If they ever had to go through me," he said of his chefs, "they wouldn't work for me. It would mean I didn't trust them."
Which means that when Mine offers a classic stuffed Dover sole, the fragile filets wrapped around a stuffing of crab and shrimp, sauced with a beautifully simple lemon beurre blanc, it is his classic stuffed Dover sole. When he does a whole Colorado striped bass, fried and doodled with a citrus-and-soy glaze, it's because he's in Colorado now and because he's got a guy who can get fresh catches of fine-looking bass whenever he wants them. Sure, some menu items repeat at multiple locations. All of the Oceanaires do a fish-and-chips platter (though not all of them use a Fat Tire beer batter), but so do ten thousand other restaurants. They all do shrimp scampi and clams casino and massive sides of hash browns and cheesy au gratin potatoes. But Mine is the only one serving Olathe sweet corn on the cob to go with the Harris Ranch filet mignon or rack of Colorado lamb. And he's one of only a few who serve bacon steaks, which (have I mentioned this already?) are simply the greatest thing I've seen on a menu since pork belly for breakfast. (Particularly since those chicken-fried oysters disappeared during a recent menu update.)
Every meal I've had at Oceanaire has been on a Monday. And I've had fish every time. On a Monday, I've had Dover sole (for which I have a soft spot, since it was one of my cruise-ship, elder-care specialties during my hotel days in New York); the strangely Caribbean-Alaskan fusion halibut cheeks with tomatoes, soffrito and a saffron fumet so light it's almost a vapor; the Japanese-inflected sturgeon crusted in black and white sesame seeds and served over udon noodles and shitake mushrooms in a delicious dashi broth. On a Monday, I've had the towering, overwhelming plateau de fruits de mer with its lobster and crab legs, ice-cold boiled shrimp, mussels and fresh oysters better traveled than I'll ever be, all set in tiers of glittering packed ice and which, even at the petite size, was enough food for an army of starveling shellfish enthusiasts. On a Monday I've said no to the lobster because I can get better, cheaper, elsewhere, and I've considered the American white sturgeon caviar with accompaniments but stopped myself because $85 for an ounce of caviar — American caviar, mind you — is murderously overpriced even by the fairly pricey standards set by the Oceanaire menu.
But then, all this coffee-can-and-bacon-steak genius; this complicated, international supply-line management; this shiny chrome and munificence of sweet, sweet fish flesh? It doesn't come cheap. You want cheap, go to Long John Silver's. You want great fish, go to Oceanaire, where you'll get what you pay for every time, any day of the week.
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