It was not so very long ago, dear flogger, that Central Florida was the equivalent to dry dock as far as seafood restaurants were concerned. Even in an area that could reach the fishing docks of the Atlantic Ocean in one hour and the shores of the Gulf of Mexico in less than two, restaurants that specialized in seafood were a rarity. The problem, it seemed, was that all the best seafood from the surrounding waters were being shipped to other parts of the country to chefs and restaurateurs who were willing to pay top dollar.
What changed? I can’t really say for certain. It might have something to do with the overall increased sophistication of a dining public that demanded more than fried fillets and breaded shrimp. Perhaps it was finally the humiliation of being coastline rich but seafood poor that prompted more restaurants to at least offer some great seafood options on their menus if not dedicate an entire bill to fish fare. I can tell you that it wasn’t until 2007 -- a year that can still be seen from here -- that I gushed in my review of the newly arrived Oceanaire Seafood Room that fine seafood had returned to Orlando.
After a recent meal there, I’m still gushing. Anyone who appreciates good fish and a chef skilled in cooking it should consider dining at the still-fine Oceanaire.
Despite a change in ownership (Oceanaire was purchased by Landry’s two years ago), the restaurant has maintained its high quality and much of what gives it charm. When was the last time you were served a relish tray upon seating? But that fits well with the Oceanaire’s overall theme of an elegant ocean liner from a bygone age. The chilled -- iced, actually -- carrots, radishes and pickles are simple noshes to accompany the hot loaf of sourdough bread and sweet butter.
My guest and I shared a chilled shellfish platter as an appetizer. This was a saucer of crushed ice topped with fresh oysters on the half shell, snow crab legs, lobster and chilled shrimp. The shrimp had a wonderful spiced flavor in the firm flesh, and the oysters -- an assortment from the oyster bar’s selection of the day -- were cool and sweet. The crab legs, which usually frustrate me for being uncooperative, gave up their meat easily, and the lobster tail and claw meat was a rich treat, especially when dipped in melted butter. At $28 a person, it’s not an inexpensive starter, but it’s substantial enough that it may be all you need.
But it would be a shame to miss out on one of chef Jairo Mejia’s fresh fish selections. There is a section on the menu for Oceanaire “classics” and another for “fresh fish specialities.” Both sections feature the available fish with creative sauces and toppings. There are also a number of “enhancements” that allow the diner to take control. My friend chose to go in that direction, opting for the swordfish and having it topped with the dynamite sauce, which includes spicy crabmeat. The swordfish was beautifully pan-seared, with a slightly charred crust but leaving the inside moist and with its characteristically firm steaky texture.
I chose the black and blue haddock, which featured the white-fleshed fillet topped with caramelized onions and a blue cheese-infused butter. The cheese offered a delightful salty note to the mild-flavored fish. And for a side dish we shared the cream corn, which seemed to be made with real cream, leaving the fresh kernels crunchy.
Oceanaire has an extensive wine list and the serving staff are all well-versed in the proper pairings. In fact, the staff is, as one, a well-trained group of professionals. Management is always on hand to ensure that things are ship shape. Which is fitting, because much of the decor is meant to invoke a luxury liner, circa 1930. The new ownership has even retained the various quotes written around the walls, including the one from James Joyce in the men's room that references the "snot green sea, the scrotum tightening sea (I thought that would be the first to go). It is elegantly casual and comfortably intimate, even when the restaurant is packed, as it was when I visited recently (the host was quoting an hour’s wait to walk-ins).
Dinner here is not inexpensive. Entrees begin in the $20s and rise from there. But that’s something we learned we would have to pay when we accepted better seafood in the area. It’s well worth the price to have such wonderful fresh fish, and to know that it will be prepared and served so expertly.
Oceanaire Seafood Room is at Pointe Orlando, 9101 International Drive, Orlando. It is open for dinner daily. Use the complimentary valet parking at the restaurant’s front door. Here is a link to theoceanaire.com where you can see the menu, which is kept up to date (that’s rare for a place that changes its menu almost daily). The phone number is 407-363-4801.